November 16, 2016

All Students Deserve to Fail

Use STEM challenges to teach growth mindset; they're natural allies!

We don't like to be the bearers of bad news. Some of us avoid conflict at all costs, but we do our students a gross disservice when we shield them from challenges in a bid to protect their self esteem. Perhaps they will avoid the temporary sting of defeat when we don't challenge them, but they will also miss out on the opportunity to develop skills like perseverance and resilience. Those character traits are earned no other way than through struggle. For some high-achievers, these lessons are delayed to when they go off to college for the first time. Spoiler-alert: Disastrous consequences ensue

I was inspired to write this and create the video above because I want teachers to understand that not all STEM challenges (or science experiments) will go according to plan, and that's not a bad thing. In fact, "failure" provides a powerful, teachable moment that has potential to be far more beneficial than a "successful" STEM challenge iteration. 

Don't get me wrong, I'm no sadist! It's a lot more fun when everything goes to plan. I certainly prefer it that way in my own life! But it's not realistic to expect smooth sailing all the time, and we have to teach students how to deal with this sometimes harsh reality -- so it won't feel so harsh!  

People with a crippling fear of failure are often too scared to take risks that could lead to great things in their lives and in the world. I know; I'm a recovering failure-averse worrier. I spent a lot of time hiding in my comfort zone! Nothing would please me more than to spare students the time and opportunities wasted in life when you are too scared to fail.  

If/when a STEM challenge doesn't turn out as you had hoped, model for students curiosity (rather than frustration, annoyance, or dismissiveness) about what went wrong. 
You know how when a toddler falls down, he looks to see if you look worried or scared as his cue to cry? And have you noticed when you shrug it off, he does too? This is just like that! Kids learn how to respond to failures from the adults in their lives. If you look upset for your students when a challenge goes badly, they'll be upset too. If you shrug it off, they will learn to do the same. Of all the things we could teach our kids, that might be the most life-altering.

But shrugging it off doesn't mean to forget about it and move on to the next thing! After a failed challenge, student teams should find, analyze, and fix failure points. You'll need to model scientific reasoning and logic as well as a growth mindset attitude. Help them generate ideas of topics to research and approaches to try next. Some of us have failure all tied up with shame in our minds, and that simply shouldn't be so. Failure is nothing more than data to be analyzed. Imagine if Edison's team gave up on the light bulb after 9,000 tries! 

So let's resolve not to bubble wrap our kids. We have to stop feeling like bad guys when we do an activity that induces frustration or challenge for our kids. Let's show them we believe in their ability to face adversity and develop resilience and problem-solving skills! 

And let's remind ourselves that all kids deserve to fail; for in doing so, they learn how to recover, learn not to be scared to take risks, learn growth mindset skills in practice rather than just theory, and they'll be better prepared for every other challenge they face in life.  Letting your kids fail might just be the most important thing you'll ever do!  


Here are two fabulous videos to help students understand the value of failure and how they can find & fix failure points in their STEM challenge designs:

Title photo credit


  1. Thank you for this clear explanation of why it is so important for kids to "fail early and fail often." I couldn't agree more. As an online tutor, I find myself speaking to parents quite often about this very topic. Sometimes, I think the parents are more afraid of their child failing than the student is.

    1. Such a good point about the parents! We need to get them on board, too. I think the pendulum is swinging back to recognize that when we try to protect kids from all harm, it stunts their ability to deal with challenges when they're adults. It's important for all the adults in their lives try to set a good example for how to handle failures and setbacks, as well as showing faith in their child's ability to bounce back rather than shielding them from disappointments. Failure is just part of the progress process (Oooh, a rhyme AND alliteration! I'm sure to use that phrase repeatedly).