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Teaching Students How to Learn From Failure

Posted on: April 13th, 2016 by

Teaching Students How to Learn From Failure

By Cynthia O’Brien

Can students really learn from failure?

It’s that time of year again — the awards assembly. As I sit at my desk recounting the achievements of my students and filling out certificates, it dawns on me that I have some students who won’t be receiving awards. The sheer notion of not rewarding every child in your class for something makes many educators, parents, and child psychologists cringe.
What will the parents say? How will this make the child feel? I can assure you, by NOT giving in to the pressure to dole out formal accolades like candy, you can preserve your dignity, help students, and create a better society. Teaching your students how to fail and then learn from their failures to fuel their success adds more value to their lives and to society than a fictitious award for achievement. Use the following three steps to help your students learn a valuable lifelong lesson about success and failure.

1. Change the Way You View Failure

I begin every year the same way: passing out pencils and papers, and showing my first-day-of-school PowerPoint presentation. Then, I show six images: Albert Einstein, Allison Payne, Michael Jordan, Mae Jamison, Steve Jobs, and Taylor Swift. I ask the students to talk among themselves and determine what these six people have in common. The responses range from “they are all famous” to “I don’t know who these people are.”
“These people all failed in some way.”
Next, I tell stories about Einstein not speaking until age 3, Allison Payne being thrown in jail and force-fed, Michael Jordan getting cut from his high school basketball team, Steve Jobs working out of his garage, and Taylor Swift hearing that she’d never be famous. “These people all failed in some way,” I say, “but they used their failures to motivate them to succeed and are now some of the most influential people on Earth.” Then I give the successful stats on each figure, as every student sits fixated and in awe at how much money these individuals make, what products they’ve created, or how they have changed the world. “This year is going to be hard,” I tell them, “and everyone is going to fail at something.But, it is how you use your failures that will determine your success.”
Learn from failure…and succeed.
At that point, students are sold on the idea that it is only by failing, reflecting, and trying again that they can and will succeed.
Failure IS an option. It is the only option that forces us to work harder. Once we succeed at something, we can stop trying to improve because we have reached our goal. On the other hand, when we fail, we have to tweak our approach and try again. Successful people do not quit: They retool and then retry ten, twenty, hundreds of times. The faster they fail, the faster they can reflect, retool, and try again. As educators, we need to stop seeing failure as an end and begin seeing it as the means to a successful end. Students will absolutely need this lesson to succeed in school and in life.

2. Losing Doesn’t Make You a Loser

I can still remember the look of disappointment on my son’s face just after his first soccer game. His team had lost. His once cobalt blue jersey was now mud-stained and dingy; a depressing look that mirrored his facial expression. “Mommy,” my six-year-old child demanded, “I want to quit soccer.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. For weeks, my son had slept with his soccer ball and rushed home from school to practice. We even redecorated his room with goals and players. The only response I could squeeze out was “Why?”
“I lost,” he said sadly. “I don’t like losing – I don’t want to be a loser.” I nearly cried. Where had I gone wrong? Had I coddled my son’s ego so much that he felt impervious to defeat, to failure? “What would you like to do instead?” I asked. “Baseball,” he answered. I countered with,
“And, what if you lose a baseball game?” I could see the wheels turning in his head when he responded rather nonchalantly, “I’ll quit that too.” At that moment, I had to face the harsh reality that I had been harming my son by not helping him learn from failure. If he felt this way about sports, which he enjoyed, how would he react to getting his first bad grade, losing his first friend, not getting selected for a job that he wanted?
“Just because you lose,” I told him,”that doesn’t make you a loser. You just have to try harder and I will help you.” From that point on, I made a commitment to helping him improve. And even though they lost several more games that season, he did not lose his love for playing. In fact, he gained the valuable lesson that losing is a natural and much repeated part of life.
The more we lose, the more we can improve.
Statistically, people will lose more than they win. We must prepare our students for that reality. More importantly, we must prepare their character so that when they lose, they don’t internalize losing and make it personal. There is room for everyone to grow at all levels in life. The more we lose, the more we can improve. Teaching students that losing is the natural path to winning will help them when life inevitably gets hard. They won’t break under the pressure of failure; rather, they will use their failures as stepping stones to success.

3. Everyone Doesn’t Get a Trophy

One of my favorite sports is major league baseball. Every spring, I watch with anticipation as more than 1,000 players on 30 teams pitch, hit, and score their way towards the playoffs. Through the months, there are wins, losses,triumphs, and tribulations. Going into the World Series, the 1,000 players have whittled down to no more than 40, and of the 30 teams, only two are left to compete for the coveted position of World Series Champion. In the end, one team wins the trophy and the prestige of being champion. The other 29 teams and 900 players have lost. Each one of them knows that there is a higher probability of being on the losing team than being on the winning team. No one is giving the losing teams lofty speeches about how “showing up is 90 percent of the battle” or applauding mediocre game performance. Coaches are strategizing about next year’s game play; players are organizing better, practicing more effective workout routines; and managers are looking for talent to elevate their team to championship status. My point is this:  After losing, these teams are reflecting and regrouping so that they have a renewed chance at winning. In those locker rooms, no one is expecting a participation award.
So, why do schools participate in this odd ritual? Why do we award students who have demonstrated mediocre performance? As educators, we place too much emphasis on kids just “showing up” and not enough on them performing. While awarding all students may seem good for their self-esteem, it is not. This type of spoon-fed success teaches students that they need not work hard to succeed, and that simply showing up is a worthwhile goal.
Still not convinced?

Pretend you are running a business with employees. Yes, employees’ presence is important. But, if the employee came to work unprepared or uninterested in doing a job, not only would you consider not paying them their day’s wages, but also your dedicated employees might demand you fire that employee, and rightfully so. If you didn’t terminate the slack employee, your hardworking employees could lose their motivation to work diligently. And if the workplace doesn’t celebrate employees for merely showing up, why are we giving students these false notions of success in schools? Don’t get me wrong: An effective, caring teacher must love and value all students regardless of their academic achievement. But teaching students how to fail gracefully, ask for help, and use the help they get is the key to their long-term success.

4. Giving Students the Grit They Need

Educators can take much of the responsibility for student failures. To protect ourselves from angry parents and hurt egos, we blur the lines between good and good enough. What a disservice we are doing to that student, to those families, and to the college professors or future employers that will receive these students! We are deceiving a whole generation to spare their feelings. By teaching students and parents the value in failure — that it takes perseverance, grit, tenacity, and determination to succeed, we give them a fighting chance to face life and its setbacks head on.
Cynthia O’Brien is a veteran teacher from the Chicagoland area and the founder of , an educational consulting firm dedicated to improving schools through high-quality professional development for teachers and administrators.
ASCD Express,
Vol. 11, No. 14. Copyright 2016 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit

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