This upside down rubber duck illustrates failure and why it's important to teach students to learn how to fail.

3 steps to rethink failure

Educators can teach students to reconsider failure and turn it into a catalyst for future success

Failure can be a painful experience for anyone, but it is especially tough for teens who are still forming a sense of self. When people experience failure, they often report feelings of embarrassment, shame and depression. Teens can perceive it as a judgment – final, condemning and irreversible.

But, as many educators know, failure is an essential part of the learning process. A 2016 study from Columbia University found that high-school students’ science grades improved after they learned about the personal and intellectual struggles of scientists, while students who only learned about the scientists’ achievements saw their grades decline. The study also indicates a positive link between learning about the struggles of others and student motivation.

Related content: 6 TED Talks about failing forward

So, yes, failure is important, but how do we teach it? Here’s a three-step plan from Rethinking Failure, a no-cost lesson from TGR EDU: Explore. Use these strategies to help students reconsider failing, and turn it into a catalyst for future success.

1. Define failure.

After introducing the topic of failure, I ask students to consider what it means to them personally. What does it look like? What does it feel like? What are its social implications? Afterwards, students share their perspectives with each other, engaging in a Socratic Seminar style conversation.

At first, students often gravitate towards the “ugly” side of failure. At this point, I intervene to propose another view: there are two sides to failure, and if we learn to use it as a mechanism for growth rather than self-punishment, it becomes a catalyst for future success.

In an article about failure’s role in long-term success, educator Monica Fuglei shares her reasoning behind hosting an ‘I hope you fail’ lecture each semester.

“After years of teachers asking for the right answers [my students] aren’t accustomed to someone highlighting or requesting the wrong ones. Students’ failures tend to linger, creating mental baggage that interferes with learning. Lifting the burden requires us to address failure head-on and encourage students to accept it as a natural part of getting educated.”

To help students overcome the ‘failure’ barrier, we must introduce them to the benefits that failing can offer.

2. Analyze the role of failure.

It’s important for students to understand how struggle can ultimately lead to success. I like to walk through a few profiles of individuals who are famous for their successes, but have also experienced notable failures.

For example…

Sonia Sotomayor experienced chronic disease, troubled family relationships and a failed marriage during her journey from a housing project in the Bronx to a seat on the Supreme Court.

Professional athlete Michael Jordan was cut from the varsity basketball team during his sophomore year in high school.

Oscar-winning director Ang Lee failed Taiwan’s college entrance exams (twice), and had his application to acting school denied because his English wasn’t considered to be good enough.

Activist Mahatma Gandhi was sentenced to six years in jail for conspiracy after his civil disobedience campaign, which promoted non-violence, justice, and harmony.

I have students collaborate to discuss the role failure played in each person’s success. It’s important to communicate that failure is inevitable, but doesn’t need to have a negative result.

3. Apply a growth mindset approach to reframe failure.

Author, blogger, and entrepreneur Jia Jiang once gave a TED Talk on rejection. Jiang embarked on a personal quest to desensitize himself from the pain of rejection, and ultimately overcome his fear. His journey revealed a world where people are much kinder than he’d imagined, and rejection was less painful than he once believed.

To overcome his fear, Jiang changed his mindset. To help my students overcome fear of failing, I encourage them to embrace a growth mindset. Coined by researcher Carol Dweck, individuals with a growth mindset believe their talents can be developed through hard work, good strategies and input from others.

When it comes to rethinking failure, a growth mindset can change the way we overcome challenges. We can grow our brain’s capacity to learn and solve problems, and use our newfound power to rethink how we overcome challenges.

For example, a thought such as “our school’s STEM club sounds like fun, but it’s too difficult for me, I don’t think I could ever join it” can be transformed to “our school’s STEM club is fun, but it’s also challenging – it would be a great way to feel the satisfaction of finishing a difficult project.”

In the end, it’s important for students to know that failing is a part of improvement, and if you aren’t making mistakes, you aren’t learning. We have an opportunity to make the most out of our lives when we risk failure.

When students feel comfortable making mistakes, the nervous feeling of being ‘wrong’ goes away, and is replaced by an opportunity to learn and grow. I urge every teacher and parent to help their students become comfortable with failure, and to make the invaluable connection between failure and future success.

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