Redefining Failure In The Classroom

In my motivational assembly presentations, I talk about how we often interpret failure to mean, "I'm bad at something," or "I'm a failure," or "I'll never be good at this."

But what if we look at failure as information, not judgment? What if we interpret failure to mean, "This is where I need more practice to excel at this"?

It's hard to internalize that message. So much of our schooling is defined by the avoidance of failure, because it inevitably is accompanied by shame, criticism, and punishment.

The problem with a shame-based approach to failure is that it often results in us giving up, getting discouraged, or telling ourselves we'll never be good at it and therefore putting in minimal effort to improve.

This attitude toward failure also applies to teachers. My amazing teacher friend, Sarah, recently told me how redefining failure completely changed her attitude toward teaching.

Previously, if her students didn't grasp a concept the first or second time she taught it, Sarah felt like she had failed. Maybe her lesson plan wasn't good enough. Maybe she wasn't communicating clearly enough. A host of self-doubts and criticism would run through her head about why she wasn't a good teacher.

But since redefining failure, Sarah has been able to look at teaching concepts as a long-term process instead of a single transaction. If the students don't understand a lesson, that's totally fine - they just need more practice. This attitude reduces the stress on her AND her students because there is less frustration when students "don't get it" at first.

The perseverance needed to persist when school is challenging is the same determination and grit that allows a scientist to conduct a hundred "failed" experiments in search of a cure. It's the same perseverance that allows an entrepreneur to test products and designs until one of them works. It's the same commitment to excellence that allows a writer to revise "failed" drafts until the submission deadline arises.

Redefining failure is a crucial life skill. Let's teach our children early so that they don't have to overcome decades of shame-based conditioning to be willing to take strategic risks as adults. And maybe we'll teach ourselves how to redefine failure in the process!

How have you helped young people redefine failure, or how have you redefined failure in your own life? I'd love to hear your perspectives in comments section below.

Posted on April 23, 2015 .