Should schools teach students how to accept failure?

Accepting Failure icon

For many of us, the idea of accepting failure lies in stark contrast to our view of the intention of school. We're there to pass, not fail. As a result, failure is certainly not something to strive for. Increasing levels of testing and measurement can also give students the idea that failure is something to be avoided at all costs. But, to a large degree this flies in the face of the process of learning. Before we can master anything, we must surely fail? By failing—whether attempting a mathematics problem, a science experiment or kicking a penalty goal—we create the opportunity to learn. After failure we can assess what went wrong, and look for ways to create a better outcome in the future, usually through a combination of learning, practice and repetition.

Failure often arises as a key theme in the lives of some of the most successful people in the world; frequently as a trigger for a new learning which led to later success. Unfortunately, focus on avoiding failure still persists in our homes, schools and businesses. If we want to understand the importance of failure as a teaching tool and, harness it for better outcomes, we first need to understand what failure really is.

What exactly is failure?

According to the Oxford Dictionary, there are many alternate definitions to failure, but the first definition provided shows the broad nature of failure:

"Lack of success"

In specific terms, yes, failure is of course not achieving success. It's interesting to note, that this definition doesn't necessarily create a negative view of failure. But now consider the view of failure which is provided as Oxford's sub-category (1.1) definition of failure:

"An unsuccessful person or thing"

The suggestion here appears to be that failure is a lack of success and therefore, the person or entity that lacks such success is also a failure. The implication of such a definition is that to fail is to be a failure, a concept which clearly is not borne out by some of the most successful people in history, all of whom failed at some point, but persisted to ultimately achieve success.

Consider this quote from author J. K. Rowling:

“Failure is so important. We speak about success all the time.
It is the ability to resist failure or use failure that often leads to greater success.
I've met people who don't want to try for fear of failing.”

There are literally dozens more quotes just like this, describing failure as a stepping stone to, or the key ingredient of success. But what is it about failure that drives us to achieve better results? And why do some see failure in such traditional, negative terms, while others seem to champion failure?

Why is accepting failure important for good education and life outcomes?

The importance—and influence—of failure is perhaps best documented in Dr. Carol Dweck's work on mindsets. According to her research, those with a fixed-mindsets (people who see a particular trait as fixed—something you're born with or without) tend to avoid failure. For them, failure is a sign that they don't know something, or are not good at something. Failure tells them that they are a failure. On the other hand, people with a growth-mindset (who see traits as malleable—something you can grow and improve) are able to see failure as a tool. Failure provides an opportunity to identify a gap in their knowledge or skill and, they can use that information to learn or practice to fill the gap. For growth-mindset individuals, failure represents the opportunity to get better.

As we've outlined in this page on growth mindsets, there are a number of benefits to learning how to accept failure, including: 

  • Improved ability to bounce back from failure or set-backs
  • Recognition of failure as a necessary step toward success
  • Increased engagement in learning – especially when there's a new challenge
  • Greater sense of self-belief when tackling new challenges
  • Increased levels of persistence (will stick with problems longer)
  • Higher levels of achievement and success
  • More likely to have a love of learning

It's not difficult to see how the list above could lead to positive outcomes for students, not only in terms of education outcomes, but also for any domain that requires persistence and mastery.

Can students be taught to accept failure?

As with teaching growth mindsets, the answer here is a very definitive – yes. Dweck's work demonstrates a number of approaches to helping students install the habit of applying a growth mindset to day-to-day challenges. The first of which seems to be as simple as simply educating them about the fact that fixed and growth mindsets exist!

As with many growth mindsets, a combination of modelled behaviour in both the home and school environment seems most likely to lead to the strongest outcomes for children struggling to cope with set backs or failure. Parents and teachers who can reframe failure as an opportunity for learning (as opposed to a sign of lack of skill or intelligence) provide students the ability to disconnect their own sense of self-worth from their specific results. Combining growth mindsets and accepting failure with persistence, practice and repetition has the opportunity to encourage ongoing learning and with it, a chance of more satisfaction and success.

Accepting failure and Passion Arena

In understanding the importance of accepting failure to any form of success, Passion Arena's programme is structured to support student understanding and acceptance of failure as an opportunity for increased learning. Our first step introduce the importance of accepting failure (along with it's connection to other non-cognitive skills) so that students understand the benefits it can provide. 

Watch a Passion Arena episode about accepting failure

To get an idea of how we introduce our non-cognitive skills and, in particular accepting control to students, click the button below to watch a Passion Arena episode that relates to failure.


Want to find out more about accepting failure?

Books on accepting failure:

If you'd like to dive further into understanding self-control, we recommend the following books. Click on the titles for more information.

Videos on accepting failure:

The acceptance of failure is referenced in a wide variety of talks, across many different subjects. Often in relation to striving for some form of success. It is often coupled with talks that also reference persistence, challenge or growth mindsets. Below, is a small sample of talks that have a focus on the role—and benefit—of failure.

 

Jessica Lahey – The Gift of Failure. (4min)

Sarah Lewis – Embrace The Near Win. (12min)

Tim Harford — Trial, Error and The God Complex. (18min)

 

While technically not a talk specific to failure, this talk discusses the impacts of over-parenting, in particular the modern day focus of helping students into prestigious colleges. For parents focused on the future success of their children, this talk may prove beneficial.

 

Julie Lythcott-Haims – How To Raise Successful Kids – Without Over-Parenting (14min)