Six years ago I was introduced to the work of Carol Dweck. I loved learning about the idea of a growth mindset and a fixed mindset. Those concepts have revolutionized the way I look at learning and talent. But what impacted me the most was her discussion of failure- that how we view failure is a critical factor which determines our level of overall success. Basically, in the growth mindset, failure is seen as a temporary situation which indicates a need for more learning and effort: “I don’t get this yet, but I believe with more practice I will” or “What can I do to get better at this?“ would be the thoughts and statements reflecting this view of failure.
In a fixed mindset, failure is interpreted as an indictment of one’s ability: “Oh, I must not be a math person” or “This is too hard” would be the thoughts and statements reflecting this view of failure.
I’ve become a sucker for quotes and resources that help teach about the role of failure in learning, and how to stop seeing it as a negative outcome that must be avoided at all costs, and instead see it as a natural part of learning. That’s why when a colleague shared this six minute TedX video from Jim Harshaw “Why I teach my children about failure” I was so excited. I wanted to wait until a perfect, quiet moment to watch it- and when I finally did, I wasn’t disappointed. If you haven’t watched it yet, you’ve got to check it out!
Why I Teach My Children to Fail
The importance of failure in learning
Mr. Harshaw’s comments about failure being a fundamental part of learning really hits home with me. I particularly love this section: “We grow up with this distorted view of the world where we think that failure’s not supposed to happen and when it does it means we’re doing something wrong, but that’s not the case. Because failure isn’t the opposite of success; failure is a necessary part of success.” Failure isn’t something to be feared and avoided- it’s something to be embraced and leveraged into successfully learning or doing something. I’ve heard this referred to as “failing forward.” But how many of our students are terrified of failing, of getting the answer wrong? How many would rather not try than fail? And what have we done as educators to perpetuate this harmful view of failure?
How educators can help students learn to fail forward
Mr. Harshaw suggests we explicitly teach children about failure- the failures of famous people such as Abraham Lincoln, Michael Jordan, etc. and how they not only experienced failures, but the role those failures had in shaping their legacies of success. These examples can help set the tone in the classroom that successful people all make mistakes and experience failure- it’s what they do with those failures that distinguishes them. We need to shift the focus from getting things right, to doing things the right way. We can repeatedly encourage students to look at “failures” as learning opportunities, not value statements of their ability or intelligence. We can create classroom cultures that embrace failures as important steps towards understanding by using strategies like My Favorite No and giving feedback that is process oriented, rather than focused on labeling work as good and bad, right and wrong.
What does this look like in math? How can we teach students to embrace their failures, and use them to move forward, rather than give up in defeat?These are the questions that have really been on my mind lately.
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