Failure is an opportunity.


ICYMI: it has been one of the most trendy things in education over the past few years thanks to Carol Dweck’s book of the same name. But something that I have noticed and heard from peers is that teaching students how to growth mindset is quite a challenge.

But based on my experiences as a student, both young and not-so-young anymore, some of the best learning experiences started with a teacher modeling something.

A couple years back, I attended an amazing workshop by the phenomenal Esther Song. It focused on how we, as teachers, (un)intentionally provide critical feedback to our students at all times. From subtle body language to things we say (that have unintended connotation or tone), we can be quite damaging. But what stood out most to me was how she opened the session: she required every single participant to stand up and sing their name, the grade they taught, and the school in which they taught. Yes. SING. And she went first. It was brutal, and participants were definitely uncomfortable. Eventually everybody got through it, some significantly better than others, and we all had a few giggles along the way. It was a really unique way to demonstrate failure, and that all of us are capable of it.

What made it so great was that she went first. She opened up to a group of strangers. She showed a vulnerable side to us that a lot of teachers, heck, people, are scared of doing. But I think this is a huge step towards getting students to see failure as just another thing. To see failure as an opportunity to learn and grow.


Some time after attending Esther’s session, I stumbled upon this TEDtalk given by Dr. Tae, the skateboarding physicist. I won’t give away too much because I think the talk is worth watching, but Dr. Tae discusses how the process of learning a skateboard trick includes expected and normalized failure, no prescribed time limit to learn it, that learning isn’t (always) fun, and that there is real-time meaningful feedback. These are things that traditional schooling does not necessarily offer students.

I like to show this talk to my students at the beginning of the year in hopes of them sharing their own similar learning experiences. The conclusion of this activity is an discussion revolving around the idea that learning mathematics takes time, and that there will be occasions where they will struggle and fail…and that it’s okay as long as they use it as a learning experience.

But I think we need to do some work outside of our classrooms as well. There are a number of adults who continue to have fixed mindsets. A colleague of mine recently sent an email detailing her experience with another staff member. In short, the staff member entered the teacher’s classroom, looked at a math problem students were discussing and said “I’m not a math person.”

Really. Not a math person? Not at all?

Well, I’m not a reading person…said not person ever.

I figure that it boils down to one or two really bad experiences learning mathematics (or science, or anything for that matter) that makes people “think” they’re not this or that. OR societal reinforcement of gender-specific content (girls are good at reading and writing, science and math are for boys).

But that’s another conversation =)

So how do you teach students to see that failure is an opportunity to learn? How do you teach a growth mindset? How can we teach adults this too?

I’m still chewing on that last question….


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s