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Child on bikeWe spend a great deal of time in schools nurturing and rewarding academic success—from gold stars on papers to honor roll awards celebrations to the selection of high school valedictorians. Recognition of success is important, but is success really the true measure of learning? What about the learning that occurs when students don’t succeed?

Failure is not the undesirable end to learning; it is really just the beginning. Acknowledging our mistakes and learning from them is how we improve. Does a toddler who is learning to walk see himself as a failure after that first tumble? When an elementary student falls 20 times while learning to ride a two-wheel bike, has she failed or is she just practicing? Albert Einstein famously didn’t speak until he was nearly four years old and was refused admittance to the Zurich Polytechnic School after flunking the entrance exam at the age of 15. As we know, he eventually learned to speak and even how to do a little math.

In her book, Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential, Carol S. Dweck (2012) talks about the difference between fixed and growth mindsets. Fixed-mindset individuals avoid failure, which they see as a negative reflection of their basic abilities, and something that might even diminish their self-worth. Growth-mindset individuals don’t mind or fear failure because they realize their performance can always be improved and that learning comes from failure. This is important because students with a growth mindset are more likely to continue working hard, despite setbacks, and work through a problem to its resolution.

One way to develop a growth mindset in students is to provide feedback effectively. In Classroom Instruction That Works (2nd ed.)(2012), we recommend ways to do this, including letting students know what they did right, what they did wrong, and what they need to do next. We suggest that students re-do their work, based on feedback, until it is correct. This helps teach them that doing something wrong is just a step in the process; feedback helps them correct mistakes and move forward.

If students fear failure, on the other hand, they become risk-averse, keeping them from thinking outside the box to find new ways to solve problems. Those who fear failure lower their personal achievement bar, and can become so focused on not failing, they set the bar at mediocre just to avoid it. To reach your personal best, to have that creative breakthrough, to make the impossible possible, you can’t fear failure; you have to use that failure as your springboard to jump even higher.

As legendary basketball coach John Wooden said, “The person who is afraid to risk failure seldom has to face success.” Analyzing a mistake and then intentionally reworking and practicing until you are successful is a process every student needs, both in school and in life.


A former elementary and middle school principal,
Dr. Howard Pitler is McREL’s chief program officer. He is co-author of the second editions of Using Technology with Classroom Instruction That Works (2nd ed.) and Classroom Instruction That Works (2nd ed.), and was the lead developer of McREL’s Power Walkthrough® classroom observation software. He can be followed on Twitter at @hpitler.

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.


  • Ron Krause says:

    Failure is NOT an option…it’s a necessity! I find it curious that if you ask 10 adults which they learned the most from their successes or their failures all would agree it was from their failures. It has been my observation that teachers, as a whole are nurturing to a fault at times. We bend over backwards to insure student success. We do nothing to celebrate failures and what it is we can LEARN from them. Sadly, those teaching in this model will take very few risks to insure THEIR success resulting in a status quo which has everyone failing…hmmmmm…so what is it can we LEARN from this????

  • Sam says:

    Dr. Pitler,

    I enjoyed reading your blog. I am an elementary music teacher. I have only been teaching for 2 years part time. The other half of the day I am an instructional special education assistant. I cannot agree more that teaching our students to fail is a critical component to teaching. Many of my students cannot stand the thought of failing and will immediately shut down when a hint of failure is in the air. Making mistakes is a part of life, and it teaches our students that they will have to cope and make decisions to improve the task at hand. The analogy you used about an elementary student falling of his/her bike is perfect. I tell my students that they cannot master something on the first try because otherwise, there would be no need for teachers or education. I think I will use that example in one of my upcoming lessons. You learn by failure and making mistakes. I plan on implementing that idea more into my curriculum. Thank you for your thoughts and insights.

  • Jennifer says:

    I enjoyed this article as well. As a high school science teacher, its imperative that students learn from their mistakes. With this being said, I find that some students do not understand the importance of failing. Everyone at some point will make mistakes and in order to correct these mistakes, the reason why the mistakes were made in the first place have to be understood.
    I would like to incorporate this idea into my curriculum as I discuss famous scientists (Newton, Hubble etc). Perhaps seeing how something great came out of failure will enlighten them and also foster the fact that failure is ok.
    I will further encourage my students to utilize the opportunities of failure to learn.

  • Ashly says:

    I agree with the content of your blog. I am an elementary school teacher. It is highly important to make students aware that failure often comes before success. In my classroom, I provide a safe, comfortable, encouraging, and affirming learning environment. My students are informed of their grades and scores aquired throughout the school year by conferences. Students perform better when they are told what they did correctly, what they did that was incorrect, and how they could improve.

  • L. Vickers says:

    This is a new perspective I now appreciate. Learning really does take place when mistakes happen. I’ve always known this but teaching students to see failure in a new light is a new phenomenon. This provides a valuable teachable moment and gives students the opportunity to reflect about what went wrong and what could have been done better.
    I will now react to failure positively rather than negatively. I can see how this new perspective will encourage students to improve and be successful.

  • Another consequence of only celebrating success is that children who come to school as natural divergent thinkers who are fantastic at thinking in highly innovative ways lose that ability. Students learn that there is one and only one “right” answer very quickly. And those that never get the right answer stop trying and lose faith in themselves. Education should be as much, if not more, about encouraging students to come up with innovative alternative solutions. In order to do that we need more educators like you, Howard, who recognize that failure is the best catalyst for empowering student confidence in their ability to succeed. Thank you.

  • Justina Thomson says:

    I agree with this blog. I am a middle school math teacher. In our society success is measured by a student’s test score. This focus on test scores limits the risks a student will take when learning. The risk of failure and the negativity associated with failure drive away a student’s desire to take chances. Simply put my students are afraid to take chances. At the beginning of the school year, I will ask my students to write about a time in their life where they failed but kept trying until they found success. During the school year, I can have the students refer to this journal entry when they are afraid to take chances. Thank you for your insight.

  • Fatima Alawi says:

    It is astonishing to teach our students and ourselves to accept the failure as not the end of world and that we could do better after that.
    As teachers, we should build in our students the strength and courage to accept the failure and the ability to learn from their mistakes. I totally agree that failure gives the strength and motivation to move on and be on the right track. Students should believe that their learning process does not depend on getting high results or success in schools, but on how they will perform in their real lives and societies.
    I was enormously impressed with the insights about the Growth-mindset individuals. However, by being reflective on the outcomes and the results, students can improve their learning and never think about failure as a negative process.
    We face the failure fear problem with our young starters students in 1,2,3 grades when they struggle in reading lessons. Students, who struggle but have the courage to read and fix their mistakes, are the ones who succeed and improve their reading, while students who fear the failure will never improve or develop their reading skills. It is not about failing or succeeding in schools, it is about the ability and courage to be effective members of schools and societies.
    I enjoyed reading the insights of this blog. Moreover, I agree that we should prepare our students to be effective successful leaders in their societies and to believe that success in the future comes from learning from failures in the past.

  • Melisa Flaten says:

    I agree with this article. The only way we can get better is to keep on trying. We do have to remember making mistakes is a part of life. A lot of us would not be where we are today if we had not had some failures along the way. We need more risk takers! We need to remind our students it is okay to fail but it is not okay to try.

  • Amber Jackson says:

    I think this article makes some great points. Failure is part of life and students need to be taught how to handle failure with grace and how to recognize it as a step in the process to success. Classrooms should be a safe place for students to experiment with their learning and to try out new ideas and processes. Giving them a safe place to fail, and subsequently keep trying, is just good teaching.

  • Katie says:

    I enjoyed this article. Failure is necessary to become great at something. I always tell my students that it is okay to make mistakes as long as we learn from them. The article had a good point that effective feedback is necessary for learning from their mistakes. It is also important for students to fix these mistakes, this gives students practice with the skills they are learning it will also help students internalize the skills. Ron Krause made a good point that we learn more from our failures than our successes. When things are easy we take them for granted but when we have to work for them we appreciate them more.

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