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Teaching Tips & Tricks, Uncategorized   |   Jun 15, 2012

Helping kids see failure as part of the learning journey

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Helping kids see failure as part of the learning journey

By Angela Watson


Teaching kids how to cope with mistakes and failure is one of the toughest (and most important) aspects of our jobs as educators. Most of our schools are set up in a way that values a limited number of intelligences, so students who aren’t naturally successful in the traditional areas and core academic subjects often feel frustrated and dumb. The way that schools define failure and success by test scores only compounds the problem. Many children are terrified of taking risks, and view failure as the worst thing that can happen to them. They want to play it safe, fly under the radar, and just get by.

So what do we do about these issues? I’ve invited Allison Zmudato answer some questions on this topic for us. She’s the author of a powerful new book called Breaking Free from Myths About Teaching and Learning: Innovation as an Engine for Student Success. In it, she shares some revolutionary ideas that individual teachers can use to transform the way they educate students despite dysfunctional school systems. Allison clearly understands the stressful situations that teachers face and makes a solid connection between the way we teach and the level of enjoyment we get from it.

One of the things I really love about this book is that after Allison uncovers the root of the problem, she has a section called “Moving to Action.” This section explains not only what schools and school systems can do, but specifically outlines what ONE teacher can do. I find this incredibly empowering, because the implication is that every single educator can affect change. No matter how many problems there are in your school system, YOU can do something to help your students break free from myths about their learning.

I’ve asked Allison to participate in a video chat to answer a few questions with the “one teacher” approach in mind. Her answers below apply to every single one us. No matter how dysfunctional your school or school system is, you CAN make a difference for students, and help them understand and value the journey to success even when they encounter setbacks.


Here are the questions Allison answers in the video above (click here if you can’t see the video):

  • What prompted you to write “Breaking Free”?
  • One of the myths you talk about is “I feel proud of myself only when I get a good grade.” I’ve seen so many kids who get down on themselves when they get bad grades. What are some practical steps we can take to show kids that we value each level of their progress, and help them understand that improvement is valuable?
  • The fourth myth you mention in your book is “If I make a mistake, my job is only to replace it with the right answer.” What can we as teachers do to wean students off their dependency on us to tell them what their mistakes are?
  • Many students see failure as the absolute worst thing that can happen to them. You address this with myth #7: “If I get too far behind, I will never catch up.” What can we do to help these students persevere?
  • Is there any final thought you want to leave with teachers who are struggling to keep their students motivated and encouraged in a system that is not designed to meet their needs? Anything else we can do to instill courage in kids so they are empowered to take risks as well as experience (and recover from) failure?

Want to win a copy of Allison Zmuda’s book courtesy of ASCD? Leave a comment below with your thoughts on helping kids see failure as part of the learning journey. The contest ends on Thursday, 6/21 at midnight EST.


UPDATED 6/22: Contest closed! The winner is #19, Adam. Thank you to everyone who took the time to leave a comment. I (and obviously many others) enjoyed reading how you grapple with this topic in your own classroom. Wonderful stuff.

Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela created the first version of this site in 2003, when she was a classroom teacher herself. With 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach, Angela oversees and contributes regularly to...
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  1. I really wish more people would understand this concept! As a first year teacher last year, I think this was the battle I encountered the most. My philosophy was about growth, the parents wanted to see the grades.

  2. Failure is a real part of life. If we protect them from when their growing up how will they be able to deal with it when they become adults. As long as you learn from it being able to fail can be a very positive experience in your life.

  3. My students think of failure as a defeat. They are SOOOOOO competitive! When I meet their parents, I understand where that comes from. They learn what they are exposed to.

  4. Some of the biggest and best lessons I learned through out my life were through the mistakes I made. By making mistakes I was allowed to review the mistake and grow from it and then use it as a way to reach out to students and parents that I teach. Therefore I do think we should allow students to fail because it is a reality of life, and students need to learn that mistakes teach us invalueable lessons that we may not learn others ways.

  5. Someone had just posted this Albert Einstein quote on FB and it couldn’t be more fitting – ‘Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.’

    Not everyone is going to be successful at everything, all of the time. I’ve read a lot of posts about children whose style of learning doesn’t fit the standard classroom but understanding that failure is just part of the process sometimes, is something every child needs to learn and learn early. Even ‘smart’ kids can find something’s difficult but if their fear of failure is great enough, they can become even frightened to try. Everyone is unique and has their own strengths – something to be celebrated otherwise the world would be a very boring place.

  6. Seeing this from France, where we grade the tiniest exercice with very good, good, quite good or “seen” , convince students that failure is normal or even something you can learn from, is the hardest thing to do ! That’s why I’m always looking for new ideas from your part of the world !

  7. I think this is all so important – thank you for sharing this book with us! As a teacher, I feel it is critical for us to model and show students how failure is part of the learning process. That is how we can learn from our mistakes and errors as well as set goals in life and school. This year I shared the Growth Mindset and Fixed Mindset concept with my students and I will do that each year now because it was so powerful and they internalized it.

  8. My mantra with my special education students (and my own children!) this year has been, “Don’t worry about your grade on a test. What’s important is that you made your very best effort and pushed your brain as far as it could go!”

  9. I teach in a poor, urban middle school. So many of my kids lack a nurturing, positive environment at home that they come to school anxious, afraid and lacking confidence beyond what you’d already expect of tweens/teens. Unfortunately, this means they aren’t willing to take any academic risks essential in learning. What they don’t realize is that shutting down and not doing anything at all brings even worse results than trying and failing. It’s heartbreaking to see kids with such broken spirits.

    I dedicate so, so much of my energy to just fostering a welcoming, safe environment so that my most anxious students are willing to TRY. I always tell them that learning, like anything fun, is a messy process.

  10. I can’t wait to read this book! It sounds like such a compassionate way to approach kids and learning. I also feel sad that this isn’t already the norm.

    I loved reading the comments above. So many echo my thoughts–especially about the difficulty of getting “buy-in” from parents who want to see “good grades,” regardless of the learning.

    I tell my students many times throughout the year that the best learning I’ve done in my life has been from failing and getting back up. I share many simple examples.

  11. It is important for student to be ok with failure at times, especially if we want to encourage them to take risks. If they always want success, then they will never do anything that may be difficult at first. This applies to anything…swimming, performing in a concert, etc. I try to point out my mistakes to the students and allow them to correct me (in an appropriate way…something else that needs to be taught). They see that I make mistakes and also how I react to it.

    I like the question that is asked in Love and Logic when a student gets an answer wrong and then works through it. ” How did you make that happen? Did you try harder or get smarter?”

  12. This is so true! Everyone makes mistakes in order to learn. Showing children examples of famous people they admire and how they got started would be a good way to illustrate this to them. Michael Jordan as a kid, missing baskets. Michael Jackson forgetting a line in a song. Movie outtakes where stars get their lines wrong and laugh about it. Then bring it back to them…learning to ride their bike without training wheels, tieing their shoes, jumping rope, etc.

  13. I think this is critical in today’s world! I use Scholastic Scope Magazine and had my students write a reflective essay on a feature article “Are You a Loser?”. It helped plant the seed that you need to be able to fail a little to ensure that you grow. I can’t wait to read this book and use it to help strengthen my future students.

  14. I think students need to be encourage to learn and be taught the failure is part of the learning process.
    I believe they should be told do not be afraid of making a mistake. What’s important is if you have learned from your mistake.

  15. Such powerful thoughts in the comments above! I too agree that learning to accept our failures as a part of the learning process is so valuable, and I work to instill this mindset in my students. However, like many have already mentioned, the emphasis on grades makes is difficult for students to accept, value, and use their failures. So often wanting to know “the answer” takes their focus off of the creative inquiry and problem solving that would truly take their learning to deep and meaningful places.

  16. This is a minute by minute battle for students with disabilities or students who are struggling and feel they have to “please” the teacher. I am consistently telling my paraprofessionals it is not the outcome, it is the process. It is not unusual for those who work with students with disabilities to want them to “feel good” and help them make their work ‘outcome’ appear perfect. However, there is no learning in the process. I have studied and studied how to help students that are so low understand that we all ‘fail’ and we all learn from those failures. It is so much fun to see them look through their imperfect portfolio’s and see how much they have progressed on their own. I do know that the pressure on teachers and administrators to pass the test that it will reflect on the student’s self imposed pressure to be perfect. I see it often in our school (Title I) where many feel their teachers are the only ones who care and they want to be their best for the teachers. I can walk down the hall when it gets closer to state testing and hear the words “the answer is ____” you must remember to answer correctly. I wonder if we sat and tallied how many times students hear “answer” in one day would encourage us to change our language in the classroom.

  17. I struggle with this a lot since I teach special needs students who are mainstreamed, so they very often get disappointing grades after a lot of effort. It’s really hard because as much as we can try to tell them otherwise, they still see it as a major measuring stick.

    I try to balance it out by having reflective discussions about what they’ve achieved, both before and after grades come out. Sometimes the kids have a hard time seeing their own good, so I participate in the discussion and point things out to them even while my main wish is for them to appreciate themselves. I don’t know how effective it is, but my hope is that after having a conversation with a student about how he learned to construct sentences, use adjectives, and use details about his main idea, I hope that that positive feeling will soften the blow of then getting back a test with a 60% from his mainstream composition teacher.

    I also try to model a lot by facing up to my own mistakes. I share thoughts with my students so they can see how even the teacher makes mistakes, but it’s not a tragedy when I do – I can accept it with a good attitude, fix things up as well as possible, and move on.

  18. I think that for kids to be OK with failure, the teacher has to be OK with failure. Ouch. I hate it when I fail to do the right thing, and I want to be “perfect” so I need to be sure I’m honest with the kids when I make a mistake.

    I also think we need to take into consideration the cultural aspects of failure. Most of my students are from Asian backgrounds, and in Asia to fail is to lose face and to lose face is seen as a disgrace. I have kids who will spend hours on a task so that it is perfect rather than make a mistake that they can learn from. I’m learning that I need to be more encouraging with kids who don’t get stuff the first time around.

    I’d love to read this book. I’ve been teaching 5 years now, and I’ve learned so much in those 5 years, but I’m also aware that it’s vital that I keep on learning. My kids need to see me keeping on learning to. Thanks for sharing this and reminding me about some things I need to work on in my classroom.

  19. Whenever someone makes a mistake, I have the whole class say, “It’s OK.” I had another teacher come into the classroom and she said something wrong by mistake. When the whole class said, “It’s OK.” to her she was so happy. I also try to ask for volunteers rather than calling on students. I think this makes a big difference. If I say this is really hard, who wants to try it, and someone volunteers and makes a mistake they won’t feel like a failure. Sometimes I try to emphasize that it was my fault because I didn’t explain things clearly or I use humor. I spin a pen to choose a student and when that student can’t answer, I’ll talk to the pen and say, “What’s wrong with you. Can’t you see that Lucy is still thinking and that she isn’t ready to answer yet.”

  20. In art, we learn that it is the process that counts, not the product… if we can keep that in mind, as a society, we would be far more creative, reflective, and even, efficient. It might be messier, but also more fun.

  21. I work with students from K-3 ,and even in those early grades there can be a great deal of competition and striving to be the best. I have to agree with earlier posts that there is a lot of parental pressure for children to be the best. I would love to read this book and find new ways to look at how to handle these situations.

  22. Wow. This is a constant point of the teacher talk that I do on a regular basis. Part of this is trying to keep normalized expectations for achievement–not everyone should be getting an A…and the grades are only part of the learning process not the goal!

  23. I wish more parents would realize that it is not all about the grades! We have had kids break down in class because they got a 98 on a math test…they just cannot handle what they perceive to be failure.

  24. I encourage my students to do their best. By doing my best, and sometimes failing, they see that learning comes from failure as well as success. The important thing is the effort.

  25. There is a piece in another 1 of my books that talks about how many times many of the most famous inventors failed before they actually got it “right” and achieved what they were after. That is an important lesson for all our children to learn. Each failure brings us closer to success!

  26. Making mistakes is a part of life. It is how we react to those mistakes that help us grow as individuals. Our students need to be challenged and learn to expect that they will not receive an A for everything they do. Improvement not perfection should be the goal of education.

  27. In my class we talk about how its okay to make mistakes and make sure to point out when myself or my paras make mistakes. We also focus on the little successes.

  28. I have enjoyed reading the comments above, and I, too, have struggled with this same idea. However, I do not teach students with learning disabilities as many of you do. I teach a cluster of G/T students. Let me tell you, I struggle with teaching them flexibility and failure ( and to them, anything less than 100% is failure!) every day! They often hold unrealistic expectations for themselves, and eh-hem, the teacher! I purposely make mistakes in front of them so they see it is OK. However, I often come off as just looking like the “dumb teacher” because they are smarter than me! They then go home and tell their parents, who in turn, question me, which I then have to explain my original intent! It is all quite comical, however, I need some new strategies!
    I look forward to reading the ideas in this book. Thank you!

  29. Parents need to learn this concept. My students accept this better than their parents. I have to explain it every year to a new set of parents. I try to stress that it is all a part of the learning process and possibly the most important part.

  30. I totally agree with helping kids see failure as a fact of life. No person is perfect, we all fail at things, big and small. Kids need to be taught that failure is a part of life. We don’t always succeed at things, but we/they keep trying. Today kids are given trophies in organized sports or other group events, even when they have not deserved it. Life is riddled with failures and we can help them understand that a younger age, hopefully it won’t be do disappointing when they do stare failure in the face. They also should know that failure does not mean the end, but that you/they have to figure out another way to succeed!

  31. I have always tried to instill in my students that “it is the process, not the product.” We are so product driven in our society, but if we can help students see what they are learning along the way there is hope!

  32. I would love to read this book and get new ideas on how to motivate students. I am a second year teacher and this coming year I will be teaching 5th grade. I think this age can be very challenging. I could use all the pointers I can get 🙂

  33. I love the idea behind the author’s premise that failure is a part of the journey. Such is life, isn’t it? This summer I’ve decided to personally study recent literature/research regarding instrinsic motivation. This book fits right into my search. I look forward to reading it!

  34. The one thing I’ve always done is let my students know that grades don’t mean anything to me and as long as they do everything I tell them to do that they *will* pass the class. I tell the parents this too (when they show up).

    I teach at an alternative school so I don’t get a lot of parental involvement and my students give up quickly. But I show them that with studying and by being involved in class that they can pass and they amaze themselves. The looks you get on these high school students is like akin to what you might see in grade school to a kid who finally “got it”! It’s one of the reasons I enjoy teaching in an alternative school. In the two years I’ve been teaching, I’ve only failed about 3 students and only had one student fail the End-of-Course test (and he “Christmas tree’d” the test).

  35. I agree that parents need to learn that making mistakes is normal, and how children learn. As a
    Teacher I have also observed other Teachers, who have not learned this concept, as well. Most of us were taught that is not ok to make mistakes, and the grade matters more, so as Teachers, we need to relearn how we view success and failure. I would love this book, as a resource, in my classroom! 🙂

  36. One of the things that I strive to do in my classes is to create an environment where students understand that mistakes are okay. This is really important with my ELL’s who think that if their English is not perfect they should not speak at all.

  37. I teach in a high socio-economic area. Their parents are a-type and all want their child to be in the top 10% even when little Johnny is born a “b” kid. They have such huge pressure from their families and those parents when little Johnny can’t cut it tend to come after us to “give” it to them. I can’t imagine our administration allowing us to say…”did you learn a lesson, okay lets move on.” I wish they would.

  38. It’s really important for students to see failure as a part of their learning journey, but it’s also important for parents to understand that a failure is not a disaster or a black spot in the grades paper, but a step in their kids learning process. Grades are only that, numbers. And children are more than that.

    I tell the parents to remember how they learnt to ride a bike. And I ask them: “Was it perfect the first day? Did your parents tell you nasty words?”. They usually answer: ” No”The fact is that you were encouraged to go on practising to be a good rider, so… why are you so upset for the failure of your kid? He/she needs to practise before being an expert. Will you help him/hem?

    I also have this chat with my students, and when they understand it their attitud towards failure changes, and marks start to go up.

    They can learn through failure, they learn from their own mistakes or from others mistakes; because, if someone makes a mistake and another student can find it, we are all learning about it, not alone, but with someone on our side.

    Sometimes, when I write in the board, I make mistakes in purpose, and students like to find them and they realize that we are not perfect. They say: “Look, even the teacher makes mistakes!”. And they are happy and they feel more secure because they see that the teacher is like them, sometimes I’ve got the right answer, but not always. And it’s not a disaster because we can solve the problem together.

    I try to create the feeling that we are a team, and as a team it’s not me that I’m good or bad, but it’s the whole group who is good or bad. And it works.

  39. I think Allison made several great points and I’d love to read her book so I could learn more great tips to help my future students. (I’m still searching for my first teaching job after getting my PreK- 3rd license in May of 2011. I am an educational aide working with an autistic student in the meantime). Thanks, Angela, for sharing another great resource!

  40. WOW! The few minutes I just spent listening and taking notes was more informative and uplifting than some of the hour-ling webinars I have attended lately! I could not write down Allison’s ideas and add my own fast enough. I had a professor in college who must have received similar training because much of what Allison said here took me back to the brainstorming sessions we had in classroom management. Allowing kids to make mistakes is such a fantastic way to take them (and ourselves) out of the testing anxiety we all feel to some degree and just ENJOY learning and discovery. I can’t wait to read this whole book for even more constructive ideas to put into action.

  41. This is an issue I’ve been pondering how to address with my students. I would love to read the book!

  42. Thank you for writing this!! Failure is a part of life and at times there are no second chances. We need to teach our children that when you are given a second chance, you need to take advantage of it, but when you are not given a second chance they need to learn to cope with the mistake, learn from it, and move on.

  43. It seems each year brings more children that shut down if not sure, or upset if not perfect. Learning is ongoing…it’s okay to try and fail…we learn together. It’s a challenge to gain their trust to try, but oh the delight when they succeed, even when they think they can’t!

  44. I’ve been teaching for 3 years and work with many students who are really below level, underchallenged, and many who have very-low expectations of themselves. To teach these students to develop the endurance of self-correction while maintaining self-esteem that they can improve (not just get the right anwer) is very difficult. I often found myself getting frustrated in class because I could see and sense their potential for huge improvement, but they weren’t budging! I plan on starting this upcoming year out a little differently with the tone – I want them to know that I expect them to work hard but to start off slow, picking up skills along the way but that they should have high expectations of themselves through this process.

    Thanks for the ideas and refreshment!


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