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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Teaching Opinion

‘Freedom to Fail’ Creates a Positive Learning Environment

By Larry Ferlazzo — September 24, 2016 20 min read
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Amber Chandler, Barry Saide, John Spencer, Riina Hirsch, Nadja Reilly, Laura Taddei and Howard Pitler are today’s contributors answering the question, “There’s a lot of talk about how we should “celebrate” and “encourage” mistakes and failures. How can teachers do that in the most effective way?”.

Response From Amber Chandler

Amber Chandler is a National Board Certified ELA teacher and author of The Flexible ELA Classroom: Practical Tools for Differentiated Instruction in Grades 4-8, blogger, and speaker. You can follow her @MsAmberChandler and join the community of Flexible Teachers at doyoudifferentiate.com:

This past spring, my class did “Passion Projects,” immersing students in a topic they loved by reading, researching, interviewing, and exploring. When ready, they built a website to showcase their ideas (see examples here). I run a project based classroom, so the basics of launching the project was not a problem. However, I wanted to push their thinking one last time: I wanted them to understand that taking academic risks was important, but that failure is inevitable--and valuable.

I knew there would be push back. By 8th grade students have already learned to choose projects that are safe, and they rarely challenge themselves to learn more because they are too programed to enjoy the grade and not the process. Ultimately, they are not comfortable with the inherent uneasiness involved with deeper learning. My goal: normalize the uneasiness students feel when approaching challenges and alleviate the fear of failing to the point that students appreciate academic risk-taking.

As I explained the parameters of the project, they were told they had to read 100 pages of nonfiction on the topic they chose, write a book review (student example), and create and complete three activities which let them “show what they know.” The catch was this: one of the activities had to include academic risk-taking. They would not be penalized if they took a risk that resulted in an “epic fail.” Instead, the fail was to be explained within their presentation, as well as what they learned, what they could do differently--reflections.

We brainstormed examples of what academic risk-taking would look like. Here are some great examples: trying a new kind of content delivery for their presentations (Powtoons, Canva, Haiku Deck, Piktochart, etc); using a new (to them) way to complete a survey (SurveyMonkey, AllCounted, Typeform, Twitter polls), and contacting experts for their opinions (LinkedIn, email, phone interview, Google Hangout, Twitter). To adults, these ideas might not be daunting, but to 13 year olds there was nothing more nerve wracking than talking to an adult they did not know for an interview.

Some of my high-achievers were concerned, of course. Did they have to fail to do the project correctly? Would they lose points for succeeding? Of course not. But they needed for me to see their academic risk taking to receive the points. For instance, if the last two presentations a student did used Prezi, and they didn’t choose something new, they’d not receive “risk-taking” points (I don’t use a deficit grading model, but students still struggle with this).

With freedom to fail, they were also free to seek out learning experiences instead of falling back on what they already knew. The best possible outcome happened: one of my high achievers “failed” miserably with one of her tasks.

She had researched animators, found the one she wanted to interview, and tried contacting him a few ways, to no avail. And then, she did the most amazing thing: she learned from it and shared it with us in her presentation. Jessica’s website explains what she attempted, what she learned, and what she’ll do next time.

The most amazing conversations occurred around our reflection process because students were complimenting one another on risk-taking--an under-appreciated mindset. Until we recognize that academic risk-taking is, for the most part, discouraged, and intentionally normalize it, we will continue to create safe, but stymied students.

Response From Barry Saide

Barry Saide is in his first year as Supervisor of Curriculum and Instruction in Frelinghuysen Township, in Frelinghuysen, New Jersey. Prior to his new role, Barry was an elementary school teacher for fifteen years, thirteen of them in Bernards Township, New Jersey. He is a 2014 ASCD Emerging Leader, and a member of the NJASCD Executive Board. Connect with Barry on his website barrysaide.weebly.com, or via Twitter @barrykid1:

The most effective way to celebrate and encourage mistakes and failures is to share openly and honestly about yours, own the ones you do make, and use yourself as a role model so students understand we learn in a culture that accepts mistakes and failures as learning opportunities. Because in the end, it is all about the learning. And, isn’t that what school is for?

Unfortunately, what children learn from an elementary school age is that mainstream society often doesn’t socially or academically accept mistakes. School often reflects this: peers laughing and calling out a student for an error in judgment, teachers using sarcasm as a response to a well-intentioned question, or parents becoming so grade-focused that their child is, too. This promotes students who shut down easily or over-emphasize the importance of grades. Neither leads to celebrating mistakes.

How do we, as adult products of the same environment our students currently experience create this culture and climate shift? We share that which would otherwise shame us daily: tell our students each time we’re trying something new in our teaching and ask them not to judge -- but provide feedback instead. When a lesson isn’t working, abandon it. Acknowledge the lesson stunk, and explain to students that we’re going to reflect on what didn’t work so we can try it again tomorrow. Do the same with our peers: celebrate, share, and laugh at the mistakes we’ve made as we eat lunch in the teacher’s lounge, or while by the copy machine. I’ve done all of the above, and it’s made me more comfortable in taking educational risks, in honest reflection, and in sharing my true self with students and colleagues. Celebrating ourselves not only encourages us, but others, too.

Response From John Spencer

John Spencer is a former K-12 teacher and present professor. He is the co-author of Launch: Using Design Thinking to Boost Creativity and Bring Out the Maker in Every Student:

I tell my students “mistakes are iterations in the journey toward success.” It is a part of the design thinking cycle. Students know that they will make mistakes as they test and revise their prototypes. So, whether they are publishing a blog post or building a bridge, they know ahead of time that mistakes are not only allowed. They are expected.

Initially, students are risk-averse. However, when they see that their grades are based upon mastery rather than averaging, they realize that mistakes are an integrated part of the class flow. I often ask them to reflect upon their mistakes when we do student-teacher conferences and when they do self-evaluations. We use a 10-minute peer feedback system that includes the recognition of mistakes and planning for future improvement.

I wouldn’t say that mistakes are something we “celebrate” in class. The truth is that mistakes suck. They take up your time. They can feel emotionally draining. I’ve never met an artist or an author or an athlete who says, “I can’t wait to make another mistake.” However, when students can see them as a natural part of the process, they can use mistakes to guide their reflection and ultimately celebrate their successes and the mistake-laden journey that led them there.

Response From Riina Hirsch

Dr. Riina Hirsch is a 15 year veteran of 9th grade ELA. She is a blogger (drriina.blogspot.com), a professional development leader and enthusiast, a Google Education Level 1 certificate holder, a fanatical retweet-er (@dr_riina), a Big Bang Theory style nerd, and a former luddite:

Fact: failure leads to learning. So why are students so terrified of error? Many students turn in nothing because they aren’t satisfied with their work. We e label them “perfectionists.” Really though, they’re just big scaredy-cats. The fear of failure overtakes all common sense.

The ultimate challenge: turning mistakes into moments to be treasured, examined, and learned from. There is no magic pill. No easy solution. No one right path. But anything is possible, when students believe we care. How do I convince them I care? With persistence.

Experimentation is my mantra and love is my language. Building trust is essential, and insanely difficult (especially with teenagers). So, I award extra credit for finding my mistakes. Students often hear me exclaim “I feel smart” or “Oh, I get it now!” It sounds corny, but modeling how to struggle is vitally important.

We talk about “smart” as a feeling, NOT a state of being. I model failure constantly, especially with technology. I model with a smile, a “Please Help,” and a can-do attitude. We try new things together. When I hear something I hadn’t thought of, I point it out. Loudly and with joy. The more I trust them to support me, the more they learn to trust me to support them.

Innovation and progress towards mastery receive recognition, reward...grades. Students know what we’re learning, why we’re learning it, and have a say in how they learn it. Explicitly teaching growth mindset is another piece of the puzzle.

But before any of that matters, students must believe I love them, even when I’m not crazy about their choices. They must love me, even when I’m asking them to do something “boring.” They must treat each other with kindness, even if they are social enemies.

We need a classroom culture that is, above all, a safe place. A place where students learn to provide constructive, not destructive, criticism. A place where we trust and support each other.

This is the result of consciously putting my heart into my classroom. Of creating a space filled with love, trust, respect, and innovation. Of focusing on student growth over content, correctness, or compliance. Of reaching out to my #PLN (other teachers), to improve together. And putting your heart into your classroom is the most rewarding way to teach.

Side effect: success redefined as growth.

Response From Nadja Reilly

Nadja Reilly, PhD, is a psychologist specializing in children and families. Dr. Reilly graduated from the University of Miami, Florida, and completed post-graduate training at Boston Children’s Hospital, where she worked for 12 years. Currently, she is the Associate Director of the Freedman Center for Child and Family Development at William James College. Dr. Reilly is also the author of Anxiety and Depression in the Classroom: A Teacher’s Guide to Fostering Self-Regulation in Young Students, editor and main author of the Break Free from Depression curriculum, and executive producer of Break Free From Depression documentary:

A nurturing relationship with a teacher can have a profound and long-lasting effect on a child’s sense of self, academic success, and emotional wellbeing. This relationship serves as a scaffold for giving children skills that will allow them to take risks, accept mistakes and failures as opportunities for growth, and to create internal motivation for learning. It’s important; however, to celebrate and encourage mistakes in the right context. Empty praise, or only performance-based praise will not scaffold. So what are some elements to consider in celebrating mistakes?

  • What are your own beliefs about children’s ability to learn? As Saphier, Haley-Speca, and Gower (2008) indicate in “The Skillful Teacher,” educators who follow an incrementalist theory believe all children have the capacity to eventually meet proficiency standards and under the right circumstances all children can attain high success. Within this view, it is the process of allowing the student to build mastery that counts - not just the correct outcome. Allowing students to engage in something that is challenging, encouraging their thinking process, and praising arriving at the outcome is critical.
  • Establishing emotional safety in your classroom so students can take risks to fail and still continue until he or she reaches the correct answer is also critical. Teachers can nurture a sense of safety in the classroom, by sharing both direct and indirect messages that clearly state, “It is ok to try and fail - I still believe in you and will care.” When children feel safe to be themselves by freely expressing their thoughts and feelings, they are more receptive to learning.
  • What are some tips for responding to students that will encourage taking risks?
    • Ask a question and then wait 3-5 seconds (wait time I); then wait again after a student has responded (wait time II).
    • Stay with the student and ask follow up questions if the answer was incorrect. Moving on to another student sends the message you do not think the student has the capacity to get to the correct answer. Validate what part of the response may be partly correct, then cue the student.
    • Ask the student to elaborate and express confidence in him or her.
    • Praise work that demonstrates effort. “You’re working so hard on that project; I can tell that you’re figuring out new ways to approach it.”
    • Set your own example. Discuss your mistakes and how you’ve learned from them.

Response From Laura Taddei

Laura Taddei is co-author of Teaching the 4Cs with Technology: How do I use 21st century tools to teach 21st century skills? (ASCD), along with Stephanie Budhai. Taddei is a leader in higher education with a mix of administrative and teaching responsibilities and is currently an assistant professor of Education at Neumann University:

In order for students to succeed in work, life and our global society, they need 21st century skills. The 4 Cs (Critical Thinking, Collaboration, Communication, and Creativity) provide a good framework for us to think about as we plan, implement and assess how we are preparing our students. According to the Framework for 21st Century learning (2015), innovation skills are what will separate those who will be able to navigate in this 21st century environment from those who won’t.

With innovation, comes risk-taking and mistakes. If we are doing something that hasn’t been done before or thinking outside of the box, the outcome may not be known or might be unfavorable. If we want our students to develop innovation skills, we need to be open to risk-taking and mistakes. Sometimes this is difficult to encourage in our students, because we do not like to make mistakes and fail. However, if the intention was good and nobody gets hurt, we can learn a lot from these experiences. This Famous Failures video conveys the message that failure is a part of life and we should not let it hinder us. One of the reasons why my co-author and I wrote our book, Teaching the 4 Cs with Technology, was to provide teachers, administrators, and schools with ideas on how to use technology to redefine learning. The use of technology definitely comes with a level of risk-taking but the redefinition of learning is what makes it worth it.

Teachers can celebrate and encourage mistakes and failures in effective ways and here are some suggestions:

Experiment with New Technologies/Teaching Methods:

One of the best ways to encourage our students to take risks is to take them ourselves. When we are trying something new, it is a good idea to let the students know this is the first time you are trying something with them. Allow for feedback and conversation about the new technology or teaching method while they are going through the process. Stress the fact that you are learning together and if it doesn’t work, it is ok. Also, keep bringing the conversation back to the learning. Are they learning the content? If so, is the new technology or teaching method helping them learn better or is it hindering their learning?

Embrace Confusion:

Whenever I would hear my students say they were confused, I would cringe. I have, however, learned to embrace confusion. Sometimes confusion is good and it goes along with risk-taking and mistakes and failure. If our students are learning something new or trying out something for the first time, this can be confusing at times. Confusion can stretch us and our students to new heights. Not everything comes easy and definitely not in our complex 21st century environment. Employers want employees who know how to figure things out and problem solve. As a teacher, I sometimes want to fix the situation and not let the students figure things out themselves. If confusion leads to learning and developing problem solving and resilience in our students, embrace it.

Informal Learning Environments:

If we want our students to be comfortable and feel safe with making mistakes and failures, we need to create a classroom environment that is fun, respectful, and inclusive. One of the best ways to do this is to have opportunities for informal learning environments. Building a positive classroom community is the most important way for teachers to ensure their students feel a part of their classroom. Teachers set the tone for this environment by allowing positive communication to occur between teachers and students and students and students through small group and whole group activities. Within this learning environment, teachers can allow students to discuss their innovative ideas and also their mistakes and failures. If students complete projects that demonstrate innovation, teachers can invite families and the community in to showcase the student work.

We created a wiki for our book, Teaching the 4 Cs with Technology, to share information and resources and hopefully continue the conversation.

What are some things that you do to encourage risk-taking and celebrate mistakes and failures in your classroom?

Budhai, S & Taddei, L. (2015). Teaching the 4cs with technology: How do I use 21st century tools to teach 21st century skills? ASCD

Response From Howard Pitler

Howard Pitler is a facilitator, speaker, and instructional coach with a record of success spanning four decades. Pitler is an ASCD Faculty member and the author of several ASCD publications including Classroom Instruction That Works, 2nd edition, Using Technology with Classroom Instruction That Works, and A Handbook for Classroom Instruction That Works, 2nd edition. Contact Pitler at hpitler@gmail.com or on his website:

“A failure is not always a mistake; it may simply be the best one can do under the circumstances. The real mistake is to stop trying.”

B. F. Skinner

It is important to celebrate and reward accomplishments, but it is at least equally important to acknowledge and celebrate missteps on the way to success. When asked how he felt when he failed over 10,000 times to invent a working light bulb, Thomas Edison replied, I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work. Schools are beginning to accept failure as a necessary step on the road to achievement, but what does it mean to really build a classroom environment of trust in which mistakes are not only accepted but also understood to be valuable learning experiences?

I believe an important first step in building this environment of trust is for the teacher to be honest and open in talking about how they have learned from failure. Especially in the younger grades, teachers are often seen as all-knowing adults. Let students know how you struggled with math for example, and how you were able to finally work through the problem, likely with some help and guidance. Show your learners that “even the teacher” has had to overcome mistakes on the road to success.

Next, be sure to have clear processes in place to facilitate student reflection. Rather than simply correcting a student’s mistakes, put the thinking back onto the learner. Here are five quick suggestions:

  • When looking at a writing sample for example, ask, “Why do you think makes this paragraph confusing to the reader? Did you as a friend to read it first?” This is much more effective than teacher edits the student simply accepts.
  • When possible, use clear rubrics that show how work will grow from developing to exemplary. Ask students to look at their work and compare it to the rubric. What do they think they need to work on next to move from level 2 to level 3 on the rubric?
  • Always provide formative feedback that lets the learner know what they did correctly, places they may have been off target, and the one thing they should look at correcting next. Students should always be urged to redo their work until it is correct.
  • Trust is something that is earned over time but can be destroyed very quickly. Be careful how you respond to student mistakes. It may be more expedient to tell a student their response it wrong and move to the next student, but it might also keep that student from responding again in the future. Try asking students, “Who can build on that answer?” or even asking the student to refine and deepen their answer. Remember that mistakes are necessary step in learning.
  • Never use sarcasm when responding to a student’s response. It may seem funny at the time and the class may giggle, but that learner will be wary of trying again.

Finally, do a scan of your classroom and your school. What are you really rewarding? Do you only have exemplars of performance or do you have samples of work showing growth? The physical environment students spend their day in shapes their thinking as well.

Bill Gates said, “It’s fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.”

Thanks to Amber, Howard, Barry, John, Riina, Nadja and Laura for their contributions!

(This is the third post in a five-part series on this topic. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

The new question-of-the-week (and the first one in this column’s sixth year!) was:

There’s a lot of talk about how we should “celebrate” and “encourage” mistakes and failures. How can teachers do that in the most effective way?

Part One in this series featured guest responses from experienced educators Doug Lemov, Danny Woo, Kathleen Neagle Sokolowski, Bena Kallick, Allison Zmuda, Jen Schwanke and Mike Janatovich.

You can listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Doug, Danny and Kathleen on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Part Two included answers from Warren Schnack, Jenny Edwards, Michael Thornton, Annie Ward, and Cathy L. Seeley.

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog -- along with new material -- in an ebook form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder -- you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email. And, if you missed any of the highlights from the first five years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below. They don’t include ones from this current year, but you can find them by clicking on the “answers” category found in the sidebar.

This Year’s Most Popular Q & A Posts!

Classroom Management Advice

Student Motivation & Social Emotional Learning

Implementing The Common Core

Race & Gender Challenges

Best Ways To Begin & End The School Year

Brain-Based Learning

Teaching Social Studies

Project-Based Learning

Using Tech In The Classroom

Parent Engagement In Schools

Teaching English Language Learners

Student Assessment

Reading Instruction

Writing Instruction

Education Policy Issues

Differentiating Instruction

Math Instruction

Science Instruction

Professional Development

Teacher Leadership

Administrator Leadership

Relationships In Schools

Instructional Strategies

I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributers to this column.

Look for Part Four in a few days...

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A previous version of this article had the title Response: ‘Freedom to Fail’ Creates a Positive Learning Environment.
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