“F”ailure is an Option

At the beginning of the year I preached this nugget of advice to my students: don’t be afraid to fail, take risks, make mistakes. In the end, I told them, they will prove to be some of your greatest learning lessons. So, having said that a number of times already throughout the year, I’ve decided to heed my own advice and put my preaching to practice. I’m typing without going back, ignoring the fact that I might not like exactly how I’ve worded things or how things have been formatted.

Regardless of one’s age, this practice is not an easy one to undertake. And, frankly, it might not have the same effect or impact on the young minds of my freshmen students as it does on an adult my age, but what I’ve found thus far is that it is very freeing and cathartic to accept and welcome failure. I’ll grant you that it’s very easy for me to claim this when I don’t have the looming concern of being graded on this task. However, herein lies the learning lesson for children and adults alike that we need to begin delivering much earlier: it is acceptable, if not flatly beneficial, to fail.

I know this might sound counterintuitive and downright blasphemous for a teacher to assert, but let’s examine this for a moment. In every facet of our lives, from the very early ages of our youth and throughout adulthood, we learn from our failures. As a child especially, this is the case quite often. How did we learn to walk? Or ride a bike? Or write our name? We tried, we failed and we tried again and again and again until we finally got it. All the while, we did so with guidance and support: someone holding our hands as we took our first steps; a hand on our seat as we began to peddle without training wheels; or, someone by our side navigating the movements of our pencil. And even then we weren’t very good at it. Yet, we persevered and now we can do any and all of these things without any thought. As adults, how did we learn to drive a car, cook a meal or even raise a child? We did so by frequently performing the task over an extended period of time, very often inadequately or incorrectly, until we got the hang of it. My point is that we fail a lot more often than we acknowledge or are willing to admit. Why is that? Well, simply put, because we don’t qualify it as failure and instead justify it as part of the learning process. The same should hold true for learning in school.

Sadly, ‘should’ is the operative word in that last sentence; not all classrooms subscribe to the philosophy that failure is an option. Well, I do. In my classroom, there will always be room for improvement. In the end, this yields the learning that teachers, parents and students alike strive for.  After all, when a student hands in inferior work, what good does it serve that child to give them an ‘F’ and move on to the next unit without providing them the opportunity to improve up on it? Similarly, what good would it serve to throw a young child into a pool without some type of swimming device?

I believe that students should not be forced – better yet, even allowed – to experience the fear or anxiety of failure. Unfortunately, by the time a children reach the 9th grade, failure is so stigmatized that when they receive an ‘F’ it becomes their scarlet letter. Failure should be the small steps students take towards eventual success. Schools should work to remove the stigma of failure from our classrooms. By doing so, we’ll foster young adults that are confident, independent and well suited to take risks, confront the challenges that they encounter in their lives to come and not fear learning. After all, they’ll eventually have to swim in the deep end alone.

~ Jonathan


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