Tuesday, May 15, 2012

If You Could Not Fail?

The month of 'AprilMayJune' is a challenging time for schools around the country.  It is the time of year when plans are being made for September, and there are numerous difficult decisions that need to be made to prepare the school for the fall.  As I am sure it is for everyone, the preliminary budgets come in to us that never seem to be enough, the staffing is so tight that it seems nearly impossible to make it work, there are courses that are over-subscribed and others under-subscribed leading to difficult decisions about which classes to run.  This time of year can be a stressful time for everyone, and for me, it has been no exception.

Feeling a bit torched after these past few weeks, I thought that I would shelve the professional reading for a night and let a mindless movie wash over me as I sunk into my couch with a bathtub-sized bowl of popcorn.  The movie of choice was called New Year's Eve, and it absolutely met the minimal expectations that I had for it.  However, in one particular scene, one actor was eulogizing his father.  Within this eulogy, he quoted his father, and the quote stuck with me:

"What would you do in your life if you knew that you could not fail?"


Over the last several months, I have read countless blogs about the 'importance' of failure.  How failure teaches us things.  How failure is a part of life.  How it is important in schools for us to 'let students experience failure' so long as we are there as the safety net to help them lick their wounds as they bounce off of the proverbial rock bottom.

I know that I could be in the minority, but I just don't buy it.  To this end, I have yet to find compelling evidence that failure is teaching kids what we want them to learn.  I have heard plenty of anecdotal reports of the importance of failing, but the solid evidence behind the 'just dust yourself off and get back up' school of thought has never come across my desk.  We talk of failure as though it is simply collateral damage, a part of life.  But for many of our struggling learners, the damaging effects of failure are lasting and real. Maybe the research proving me wrong will surface, but...

...but forget the evidence.  In a time that we are asking students to be critical thinkers, to be creative dreamers, and to solve problems that do not yet exist, which phrase would you rather your son or daughter hear from their teacher or principal?

"In your life, it is important that you experience failure.  I know this to be true.  Don't worry, you will be stronger for it."


"What would you do in your life if you knew that you could not fail?"

Putting this into context,  how many times do we have to coax students (or our own children.....) to even remotely contemplate trying something new?  How many times as adults do we have to force ourselves to step out of our comfort zone?  To this end,  I would venture to guess that if the level of encouragement proffered to us was commensurate with the 'importance of experiencing failure'  comment, we likely would retreat to our corners and not bother trying anything new at all.

We have to be careful when we say that it is important to 'experience failure'.  How much of this failure is the right amount?  What happens when a student decides that they have experienced 'enough' failure, and decide to quit.  What if they have experienced so much failure that we lose them altogether?  Now what?  Is that the right amount?

Call me Polyanna, but I want students to try the things they would not normally try.  To do things that they would normally not think that they could do.  And the only way to get them to do those things is to build the belief that they CAN do it, to help them scaffold the task so they have the appropriate level of challenge, and to build their resiliency skills so when they are confronted with the inevitable challenges that will come they choose to persevere.   In short, I want them to approach their courses at school as though they cannot fail as opposed to thinking they might fail and that failure is good for them.

At an Assessment Conference I attended several years ago, I heard Rick Stiggins say something that has stuck with me to this day:

"It's not important whether children hit the target today.  It's whether they come back to try again tomorrow".

By believing students will be successful, guiding them closer to the target, and having them approach their education as if they cannot fail, we will make the creative problem solvers that will come back and try again tomorrow.

That is the school that I want.


  1. Thanks Cale. Great post. In my presentations I have often asked participants "What would you try to do if you knew you would not fail?" and have them reflect on current practice as well as practice going forward. Now I'll need to track down the movie!

  2. I think there's room for both philosophies on the shelf. As a student, I feared failure. Failing meant that something was wrong with me--that I wasn't smart or I would no longer be able to keep up with the class. I didn't take risks because I didn't want to risk what I had. For students who view grades as currency, fear of losing class rank or scholarships can stifle intellectual risk-taking and creativity. When I experienced my first failure, it taught me a lot about myself and my perception of the world. It freed me to take more risks and be less encumbered by an enslavement to GPA. That being said, not all failures are created equal. I want my students to fail in the way inventors, designers, and scientists fail--smart failures that take a hypothesis and test a variable. These types of failures are a success in that the inventor, designer, or scientist gets closer to the goal even when the experiments "fail."

  3. Cale
    Once again you have caused me to pause and think. I am the first to say that we need embrace a spirit of trial and error in learning. And yet I agree with you that we need to be mindful to create conditions that promote success for our students. In our practice as teachers I do think that we must be mindful that we don't "grade" all our students work. This undermines the "trial and error" nature of the learning process.
    Thanks for another great post

  4. Am wondering... is it more about how we define "failure"?

    If we define failure as an F on an assignment or report card, then yes, this needs to change. What if we define failure in the coaching sense... And keep the focus on the process. I may fail to miss the target and temporarily experience a lack of success but if the process includes ongoing feedback, self-reflection with a longer term goal in mind (along with purposeful practice), is this type of "failure" a bad thing?

    I have had this conversation with many students. Failure is often perceived as final. Maybe it is not about "allowing kids to fail" but redefining failure in a way that is about practice, taking risks, getting out of your comfort zone... And learning?

    We don't to just make kids fail for the "sake of learning"... But what about wanting them to take a few shots, miss, and respond?

    Is it about the traditional definition of failure? Thoughts?

  5. Hi Polyanna! Just kidding. You made me think about my ideas around failure and it took me back to my M.A. days when I was told not to design a REAL experiment because it would not get published unless I had positive research findings. And I thought, "But then is it really research if we already know the answer?". It shaped who I became as a teacher and encouraged my students to try and to explore.
    Not to make the attempt is the only failure in my mind.
    Keep in touch!

  6. …long-time reader…first time poster... Thank-you, Cale, for your blog’s humble, wise, and reflective words. In terms of 'failure', I must admit that I have been guilty of reflecting on ‘failure’ as a silver-lining when something hasn’t gone well for a student. Certainly, I would prefer a student not fail – I mean – I would assume that achieving an acceptable outcome for a given task/situation/opportunity/experience would be ‘better’ for that individual than ‘failure’. Perhaps ‘better’ needs to be defined here…maybe not…
    At the same time, I wonder how many low-achieving students are dis-motivated due to a fear of failure? Perhaps they do not make yet another effort towards some goal – academic or otherwise – when they have experienced failure in the past or if they do not see how ‘success’ (if that’s an acceptable opposite of failure) is possible from their initial position. I cannot run a half-marathon this afternoon. Really, I can’t. I have in the past…but today that just wouldn’t work for me. So, perhaps when looking at the future ‘goal’ I must take into consideration the steps and processes that will be needed. Question for my own experience here: how do I best help my students break their tasks/situations/opportunities/experiences into smaller, bite-sized steps?
    One final thought here: A leader who I respect dearly shared with me once that one should not be as concerned about one’s success, but rather one’s faithfulness to the given situation. Have I done all that I could? Is there more I could have done? Can I look people in the eye, so to speak, about this situation? If so, then I can walk with my head held high – regardless of the outcome.

  7. The question "what would you do if you knew you could not fail?" is misleading. I mean, if I knew I could not fail, I'd attempt to end hunger and disease by snapping my fingers.

    The thing is, that's not the way the world actually works.

    1. A bit of an oversimplification, but I would respond by saying: if more people attempted things to end hunger (to use your example) because they believed they wouldn't fail, would the likelihood of success be higher or lower?

      Furthermore, let's look at the flip side of the question, which could be "What would you do if you knew you WERE going to fail?". Pretty easy answer there: absolutely nothing.

      I would rather my children go to a school and be a part of a system that embraces being creating and taking risks.

  8. Some terrific comments here, thank you all for your input.

    I guess where I struggle is with the term 'failure'--it seems negative, finite and de-motivating. When we equate missing a target with 'failure', is that the message that we want to convey to the learner? Or, would we rather them know that we are going to give them more feedback, time and support to hit that target? Some people might say "this is just semantics", but for me it is not. I agree with Chris, we need to re-define the concept of failure: in my estimation, when we experience adversity in our lives, or, in the optic of schools, when we are not successful in a course, we need to know that we are going to get more guidance and support. When people say "I learned from failure", we didn't fail--we learned!

    Like this conversation.

  9. Home run, Cale.

    Point blank home run.

    And a message that I needed to hear today.

    Thanks for sharing it.

  10. Good points. I'm reminded of a scene in the Big Bang Theory when Sheldon argues with someone that something is either wrong or not wrong - there are no gradients. His friend counters, "No, it's a little wrong to call a tomato a vegetable. It's very wrong to call it a suspension bridge."

    I think failure is a bit like that. It's okay to let my students attempt to make a car from ticks, straws, index cards, and tape - and fail in a number of attempts. It's not okay to let them fail science.

  11. Good stuff Cale. I just happened on your blog. I too am a public ed administrator. I have a blog that I have to keep anonymous due to my views not jiving with the districts. Check it out and please leave feedback if you can. I would love to trade ideas and insight.

  12. New to your blog! What a great post-it got me thinking about messaging taking risks/chances in an environment that all too often is focused on measuring knowledge. Not great bed fellows. As teachers, and those who work with teachers, we need to rectify and consider how this will make sense (or not) to our students.

  13. I agree with Chris when he talked about the definition of failure, and I think that may be a big part of the problem. Even at fourth grade, I see 9 and 10 year old kids who are terrified to make mistakes or to try. And when I ask them about it, they echo what Chris and several others mention: failing is final, you get your test signed by your parents, and you get a bad grade on your report card. Nobody in our culture views mistakes or failures as opportunities to learn, and offering kids the chance to fix a test or redo a project which falls in the "failing category" practically gets you stoned by those in education.

    While I agree that part of it is the definition, much of it is that we have a culture in education where students pass and students fail, and that is how we judge everybody. It's going to take small steps in many, many individual classrooms to help students (AND their parents) see that mistakes are a natural part of problem solving and learning that need to be embraced so we can move on to bigger and better things.

    Thanks for making me think again about this important topic. I'm going to continue to give my students as many opportunities as possible to take their mistakes, learn from them and grow to create something new and amazing.


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