I have always struggled to accept failure. To be fair though, I think this is a problem most people share. From an early age we’re taught that success and winning are everything. We see this reflected in our culture through a thousand scathing proverbs:

“Nobody remembers second place.”

“Are you a sheep or a shark?”

“Winners succeed. Losers try their best.”

As teachers, we recognize that failure actually plays an important role in the education process. Mistakes are how students acquire knowledge. They’re also a big part of learning to think critically. If our students develop a toxic relationship with failure, it won’t be long before their academic growth becomes stunted. To ensure our students accept failure as a natural part of life and learning, here are four strategies to remember:

Not Losing, But Learning
  • Embrace the Emotions: It’s pretty common for students to get swamped by negative emotions when a test or project ends poorly. Often times they’ll try to avoid their emotions and distance themselves from the disappointment. Instead, have them start by considering their emotions, rather than the failure itself. When students acknowledge how they’re feeling and allow themselves to process their thoughts, failure ceases to be something to fear. That way, they’re better equipped to view it as part of the learning experience.
  • Accept Appropriate Responsibility: Making mistakes isn’t a problem so long as students can learn from them. However, this requires students to reflect on their actions and accept responsibility when needed. Did they not study as much as they should have? Did they take on more work than they could handle? In some cases, their failure may be a result of events beyond their control. Help them see where they should accept responsibility and provide support in cases where life overtakes learning.  
  • Dispel Negative Ideas: Did you know 9 out of every 10 leopard hunts end in failure? It’s true! Despite being an apex predator, the leopard usually fails when trying to catch meal. When students are tempted to believe negative stereotypes about failure, reminded them that even nature’s best hunter fails most of the time. Failing doesn’t mean that a student isn’t smart or that they’ll never succeed. It’s just an opportunity to try again!
  • Create a Plan to Move Forward: Once students have identified their mistakes and what they can learn from them, they’ll be ready to construct a plan for moving forward. Remind them that dwelling on their past mistakes or rehashing old problems will keep them stuck. With their new learnings, have them think about what they should do differently next time. Create a plan with them that will help put the information they’ve gained into practice!
If at First You Don’t Succeed

Failure is a part of life. Instead of approaching it with scorn or shame, our students need to see the massive potential it creates for learning. Our mistakes are what help us grow, and when applied correctly, they provide the motivation we need to stay curious, creative, and thinking critically. Remember, there is nothing wrong with being wrong, so long as you learn something!

*Image courtesy of Byrdyak via Wikimedia Commons.

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