Remember those little toys shaped like an egg called weebles? “Weebles wobble, but they don’t fall down.” This is a pretty good life lesson if you think about it. How do we cultivate such a mindset in the life of our students, helping them learn to persist through the wobbles or failures of life, learning from them, persisting through them, and having a joy and resilience in life? I contend that one thing we can do is revisit how and what we teach about failure. Here are then places to start.
1. Create a culture where failure is a natural part of the learning process. Failing has turned into a bad word, a character flaw, and something about which to be ashamed. Yet, if we go to thriving startup communities, failure is not always seen that way. Risk-taking is respected, and failure is bound to happen at times when we take risks, even calculated ones. If we want to help students develop into adults who have courage and confidence as calculated risk-takers, then why not start it in school?
2. Consider alternatives to letter grades. – For many, it is hard to separate the concept of school from grades, but it is possible. In fact, there are a growing number of schools around the world that are coming up with alternatives to letter grade systems: standards-based report cards, narrative feedback, portfolio assessment and more. My support for alternatives continues to grow, largely because I believe that grades are counter-productive. While they serve as extrinsic motivators, what is the cost? What is lost? They seem to encourage playing it safe, and discourage experimentation and striving for things with potentially uncertain results.
3. Use ungraded and formative feedback. I realize that many will not get rid of letter grades. That is alright. There is still value in minimizing their role. If the goal is to help students get better at something, then give them a chance to practice and get feedback before getting a grade. There is even research to show that students are less inclined to cheat in such an environment. Grading every practice activity is just about rewarding those who don’t need much practice. That makes school about rewarding people who don’t have to work as hard, and leading those who do to feel like they are inadequate.
4. Debrief it. Whether things are a failure, success, or a combination of the two; there is so much opportunity for learning in debriefing the experience. What went well? what didn’t? What other strategies could you have tried? What would you do the same or differently if you could do it again? What knowledge or skill would increase your chance of success next time? How can you gain that knowledge or develop that skill? These are a few of the many helpful questions for debriefing, and they sometimes lead to many valuable learning vistas…those “a ha” moments.
5. Celebrate people who try something new or hard and fail. This will help nurture a culture with grit, persistence, and getting back up and trying again. Removing the social stigma of failure frees students to strive for goals that are out of their reach.
6. Teach about growth and fixed mindsets. For fixed mindset people, failure is a sign that you are a failure. For people with a growth mindset, it tends to be seen as feedback and a challenge to work hard and keep at it until you get the result you want. A growth mindset knows there is progress that comes from trying and trying again.
7. Model failure. Teachers can also be candid about their failures, how they dealt with them, and what they learned from them. This goes a long way in modeling that failure is not something about which to be ashamed, but something from which we can learn and that we can use to improve.
8. Set big goals and incremental ones. Big goals without the incremental ones can be overwhelming and discouraging. By teaching students to set incremental goals, they can learn to monitor their progress. They see that a failure is not an end point, but just a temporary setback in the journey toward a larger goal. When students persist to the larger goals, have them reflect on the steps along the way, the inspiring, challenge, discouraging, and motivating parts throughout the journey.
9. Study the failures of great leaders and inspirational people from the past and present. Make failure a topic of study, learning how people cope with it, use it, and overcome it. Each of these become stories/scripts to guide us as we work through failures along the road to success.
10. Teach that human worth is not rooted in a person’s successes or failures. Human worth is inherent. It is not based upon what a person does or does not accomplish. Life is a gift and each person has been granted value that can’t be taken away, not from the greatest failure. Coming from a Christian background, this is foundational part of my world view. I believe that God gave each of us inherent value. God declared us as precious and important. Such a mindset gives us to freedom to be risk takers, innovators, and people who fail with grace. Yes, failure can be painful, but it doesn’t take away your worth.