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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.

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