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Education is About Learning from Failure


I was relaxing reading the New York Sunday Times a few weeks ago when an article, Learning to Fail by Jessica Bennett, caught my eye. The article discusses the struggle that college students have in seeing failure as part of the learning process. According to Bennett, support services have been set up across college campuses to help students learn to fail. Professors also take part in the dialogue, recalling their own failures.

As a career educator, I’m always trying to make connections between teaching and learning. How is it that we have students who see failure as a personal reflection of their character, rather than a natural struggle to learn new information? For over 35 years I have taught elementary students and worked to enhance teacher training.  I now teach students in undergraduate and graduate educator preparation, and I want to make sure they understand educating students isn’t always about test scores and proficient ratings. If we are to change attitudes it will begin with school administrators and teachers fostering the process rather than the product of learning.

Somehow we lose touch of what learning means. Even though we cheer on a baby as they stumble and fall repeatedly learning to walk, we can’t accept these “stumbles” in ourselves. In the world of sports, we understand that there will be strikes, fumbled balls, missed hits, and losses.  Why can’t we carry this thinking over into academic learning?

For my Ed Prep students, I offer the following advice as an educator of 35 years.

  • Praise your students’ efforts rather than just the grade.
  • Talk about failure and learning from mistakes as a part learning.
  • Foster intrinsic motivation which comes from wanting to do better to reach personal goals.
  • Highlight famous people who have failed many times, such as Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln, Michael Jordan, Walt Disney, and J.K. Rowling just to name a few.
  • Share your own failures and mistakes so students see that you also have similar experiences and struggles.
  • Celebrate the resilience and perseverance you see in your students because that is what is truly important.

Future teachers will have much to impart on their students.  Give them a gift they will use forever.  Help your students embrace failure as a natural part of learning. Capable, smart people fail every day. It is how you cope with these failures that show your determination to succeed. 

Joanne McDonnell, M.Ed., Assistant Professor/Director of Education Programs at Anna Maria College. Joanne has taught PK-12 students and teachers in Massachusetts for thirty-six years.

To read Jessica Bennett’s article, Learning to Fail:

Expand your learning through Ted Talks: J.K. Rowling the Fringe Benefits of Failure:

The Unexpected Benefits of Failure, By Astro Teller:

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