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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

What Can We Learn From Failure?

By Peter DeWitt — August 03, 2013 6 min read
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What really happens when we fail? I guess that all depends on what we are failing at, and how many times we actually fail. It matters whether we have a supportive family or one that shows no support at all. Failure means something different to all of us. It may mean not getting the job we wanted, or to others it might mean never finding a job at all.

Our students do know a thing or two about failing as well. To one student, failing may mean scoring a 90 on a test when they are accustomed to getting a 100 (Hopefully they have parents who understand that a 90 is not bad from time to time). To another student, failure may be something more drastic, like failing to get into the school of their choice.

All schools have students who seem to find failure around every corner, and are exposed to it on a daily basis at their home. They are neglected by their families or have parents who take drugs or abuse alcohol, and their children always come in second place to the next high. Those students enter into our schools feeling like all the adults around them won’t care, so they move through life anticipating the next failure...or at least expecting it will happen soon.

Then we have students who are somewhere in between. They are sheltered from failure. Their parents contact whomever they can to make sure their child doesn’t fail. Whether it’s the principal, coach or the English teacher, there are parents who do not want their children to feel unsuccessful, even thought we should all feel that way from time to time. I firmly believe that we all should experience failure.

Is failure that bad?

Can our students learn from failure?

Miller-Lewis et al (2013) found that, “There is great individual variation in children’s response to adversity, and many children exposed to adversity escape relatively unscathed and instead function adequately” (p.2).

Unfortunately, we don’t talk about this enough. When kids hear adults use the word “fail,” they only see the negative aspects of it, which is unfortunate because failure can teach us a great deal. We can learn how to do something better, or when to walk away because we may not be good at something at all.

Clearly, there are students who live with failure too often and they need help to guide through it. They need the help of a supportive adult to become resilient. Cicchetti (2010) wrote,

The factors associated with resilient functioning: a) close relationships with competent and caring adults in the family and community; b) self-regulation abilities; c) positive views of self; d) motivation to be effective in the environment (i.e., self-efficacy and self-determination); and e) friendships and romantic attachments with prosocial and well-regulated peers" (pp.6 & 7).

Does Accountability Set Children Up to Fail?
Unfortunately, in these days of increased mandates and accountability, teachers are at risk of defining students by numbers, which come in the form of the grades they receive on high stakes tests. Students who receive a 2 are at risk of being labeled a 2 by their teachers and administrators. What’s worse is with common standards like the Common Core (CCSS), students are at even greater risk of failing.

As they leave one grade in pursuit for the next, they have to prove that they can meet the grade level exit expectations as well as the entrance level expectations to the next grade level. What happens when they cannot meet the benchmark? Unfortunately, teachers are beginning to discuss the topic of grade retention again. It’s a topic that should have seen its end long ago, but grade retention may be making a comeback.

We know that not all students are at the same academic level and the CCSS only provide the false hope that all students can achieve at the same level at the same time. Teachers and administrators who look at the CCSS as the benchmark are less likely to differentiate because they are concerned that if they “water down” the curriculum, the students leaving them will not be prepared for the state assessments or the next grade level. In addition, students who fail to meet these expectations negatively affect the score of their teacher, and might cause them to fail.

Waxman et al says that, “Students at risk of academic failure often face a complexity of problems caused by poverty, health, and other social conditions that have made it difficult for them to succeed in school"(2003. p.1).

It’s important to remember that no matter the weight of accountability, students should be taught how to be resilient to failure. Quite honestly, during this time of increased accountability, we can all learn a thing or two about resilience.

Social Media puts failures in the spotlight
As much as social media is a great tool that can connect us with other like-minded people, it also poses a problem for students. Sometimes I feel badly for children because they are hit with images all day every day. If they make a mistake at school or embarrass themselves with friends, they become at risk of hearing about it through Twitter, Facebook and other social networking mediums. Social media isn’t always kind to failure.

Simple mistakes, that we all made as kids, can now be easily sent to thousands of friends and can become viral. What’s worse is that there are some kids who want their mistakes to go viral, which they may regret many years later.

However, in this day and age, which sounds really old, mistakes on social media is the modern way for kids to experience failure. As much as the adults around them may want to prevent it, we also have to teach kids how to handle it. They need to learn how to accept their failures, apologize if they hurt someone, and move on to other ventures.

Instead of protecting students from failure, especially if they are at high risk, we have to teach them that it is a natural part of life. One of the ways they can better handle the failure that we all experience, is to teach them the coping skills they need to move forward. Without coping skills, life becomes a series of negative events.

In the End
There are a variety of ways to help children cope with, and work through, failure. One of the easiest and most effective ways to discuss any subject in an age-appropriate way is through the use of children’s picture books and young adult literature. Depending on the age of the children, there are a variety of picture books and young adult novels that focus on failure. The following are a few:

Books About Failure
• Mirette on the High Wire - Emily Arnold McCauley
• Mrs. Mack - Patricia Polacco
• Homemade Books to Help Kids Cope: An Easy to Learn Technique F/Parents & Professionals - Robert G. Ziegler
• Frédéric by Leo Lionni
• The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins: An Illuminating History of Mr. Waterhouse Hawkins, • Artist and Lecturer - Barbara Kerley,; Brian Selznick (Illustrator)
• Ish - Peter H. Reynolds
• The Bedspread - Sylvia Fair
• Giraffes Can’t Dance - Giles Andreae
• Handel, Who Knew What He Liked - M.T. Anderson and Kevin Hawkes
• Song of Middle C - Alison McGhee and Scott Menchin
• The Black Swan - Nassim Nicholas Taleb
• The Smartest Guys in the Room - McLean and Elkind
• Loser - Jerry Spinelli

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• Cicchetti, Dante (2010) Resilience under conditions of extreme stress: a multilevel perspective. World Psychiatry. 2010 Oct; 9 (3):145-54.
• Miller-Lewis, Lauren, Amelia K Searle, Michael G Sawyer, Peter A Baghurst and Darren Hedley (2013). Resource factors for mental health resilience in early childhood: An analysis with multiple Methodologies. Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health 2013, 7:6
• Waxman, Hersh, Jon P. Gray, Yolanda N. Padrón (2003). Review of Research on Educational Resilience. Center for Research on Education, Diversity and Excellence.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.