Parents often have a visceral reaction to the word “failure” in the context of student learning. This is especially true of parents who pay tuition at a private or independent school. An investment in your child’s education should lead to success, right? And isn’t failure antithetical to achievement?
You already know the answer to this, even if you struggle with the term “failure.” From J.K. Rowling and Steve Jobs, to Albert Einstein and Michael Jordan, cases of failure leading to success are prominent in our society. Tales of hitting rock bottom, getting fired from a job, or missing the game-winning shot are integral to the ultimate success of individuals and companies. Without failure, what would success look like? What would its value be? What lessons would be missed along the way?
Trial and Error: What the Research Tells Us
Do you remember being scolded as a child for “guessing” at an answer? Decades ago, students were chastised for taking educational guesses or fumbling for an answer. At the time, we didn’t have readily accessible brain research that is available today. A 2018 study by Andrée-Ann Cyr and Nicole D. Anderson posits that “errors benefit memory to the extent that they overlap semantically with targets.” At the heart of this study is the comparison between rote memorization—when students are given material to remember—and the requirement of students to guess answers on their own. Statistics showed that students were less likely to remember information they were given after a 10-minute break than they were when they played an active role in the guesswork. In short, trial and error actually helps students recall information, even if their initial answer was incorrect.
The Risk of Rejecting ‘Failure’
We all make mistakes. Usually, it doesn’t make us feel great. As adults, we try to rebound quickly and move on, and, if we’re lucky, we see the value in learning lessons through failure. For a child, however, making mistakes in a classroom or in front of peers can have a damaging effect on confidence and self-worth. It is important to strip away the negative connotation with the term “failure” and, instead, encourage students to view it as a positive thing. By embracing failure, we are allowing children to learn in better conditions, which will ultimately lead to more positive outcomes.
The Importance of Failure at Fessenden
At Fessenden, we often talk about the importance of failure, and even the gift of failure, as it relates to student learning outcomes. We believe it is critical for parents to understand how important failure is for their children to make mistakes. Messages that are delivered in the classrooms are most effective when emphasized at home; if teachers are promoting healthy risk-taking that may just lead to failure, but could also lead to success, it works best if the message is consistent. We are careful to promote positive classroom environments throughout the school, and being okay with failure is essential to confidence-building and creating an atmosphere where students feel safe and excited about taking risks.
You Tell Us
What is your stance on the word “failure”? Do you think it has a place in schools?