The Value of Failure for Learning


I recently had the opportunity to visit the Winter Mansion of Thomas Edison in Ft Meyers, Florida. Not only was I impressed with the myriad of projects he was involved in but also the number of his devices and inventions that started out as ideas, became failures, but with later modifications and changes become highly successful and indispensible innovations for the world.

This idea that failure is just a stepping-stone towards success is the focus of an engaging TED Talks called “The Power of Believing that You Can Improve,” by Carol Dweck, that can be found on YouTube.

Based on her mindset research, Dr. Dweck has found that the most common responses to a challenge are for people to:

  • Accept and embrace the challenge and look forward to learning
  • Run from the challenge and fear failure by shutting down
  • After the failure look for someone who did worse than them so they don’t feel bad about themselves

She discussed that by having an open mindset you to accept and embrace the challenge of learning something new or rigorous. By knowing and accepting that with learning comes setbacks and failures, the next steps towards success is learning from your mistakes. The setbacks/failures are by no means the end of the learning process. They are actually the beginning. By giving yourself permission to make mistakes, having failures, and then challenging yourself to take action, comes the knowledge of “what it is not” and pushes you to keep trying to figure out “what it actually is or can be.”

Dr. Dweck suggests that many run from the challenge because of the fear of failure. This is displayed by shutting-down behaviors. Giving up easily and not being willing to try something new reflects a closed mindset that does not see the possibilities or opportunities to expand “what they know it to be or what it can become.” In groups where failures are not embraced often no learning has taken place and cheating to avoid mistakes becomes more frequent. Those who consider themselves failures look to see who also failed and are encouraged to know there were others whose mistakes were far worse than their own.

Thomas Edison, saw his setbacks as steps in the inventing process. He saw many options for his next steps and took advantage of each of them. When an option was not readily available, such as a shortage of rubber for tires, he worked to find one more. Edison is known for his hybridization of a goldenrod plant as the main ingredient for an artificial rubber be used in tires. He often worked with collaborators, such as Henry Ford, to leverage their mistakes as well! 

Edison posted a quote by Sir Joshua Reynolds in his laboratories. It stated, “There is no expedient to which a man will not resort, to avoid the real labor of thinking.” He knew the challenge of inventing and working through setbacks. It could be difficult and he acknowledged it was often disheartening. But, he showed the benefits of an open mindset and embraced his failures with action!

Pat Hymel hosted a TEDxBirmingham 2014, called “Rethinking Failure” where he addressed helping to overcome being stuck in a cycle of failure. He called it “Finding your Beginner’s Mind.” Within that segment he shared the story of Michael Jordan leaving NBA basketball where he was a champion and beginning his career in professional baseball. According to some, he was a failure in baseball; he lacked the skills needed to become a champion in that sport. But, what Dr. Hymel suggests is that he had the opportunity to learn professional baseball as a beginner. He needed to learn a new set of skills, perfect those skills, and work at understanding the complexity of all the actions needed to be a successful baseball player.

Michael Jordan, was able to learn from that humbling experience, his failures, and return to basketball to view the sport with a different mindset. He viewed his sport from the eyes of a beginner and was able to fine-tune his skillset with new learning, to go on to win four National Championships with a perspective of growth and innovation.

Students in our classrooms come to us with a variety of experiences; the majority of which were positive and lead to learning; but some were not. If your students see setbacks as just a way to look for another option, they will continue to be successful. But, if they see setbacks as failure, and run from the challenge of learning, our role as teachers becomes extremely important in turning them around to the path of learning.

Piaget, in his research on the cognitive development of children, noted that each child was on a continuum. Some children mature quickly and are able to accomplish tasks sooner than others. There are some cognitive tasks that he found occurred in narrow age ranges. When children are able to accomplish a certain task, such as being able to recognize the facial features of their mothers, he said they met a milestone. At no time did he call a child a failure, if they were unable to successfully complete a task by the time the majority of other similar-aged children could. They were not yet in that stage and learning was still occurring.

In our classrooms, as we are guiding our students through the learning process and asking them to accept the challenges of learning something new or complex, we need to evaluate our perspectives on failure. Do we consider where our students are in the continuum of development of that skill? Have we considered the strategies we have used to bring them along in their path towards success? Have we found other options when the one we previously selected led to failure? Have we encouraged and nurtured a growth mindset?

Terry Talley, Ed.D. is with STEMcoach in Action!

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