Four Rules of Failure

The blogger works on the hem of her daughter's prom dress.

I am a huge fan of failure.  I believe there’s no better instructional tool than a solid F.  The reason I do not support grades as a teaching tool is because we have trained our students to view an F as something to be avoided.  As a result of this pseudo achievement culture, we have created generations of scaredy-cats.  Fear of failure makes students dishonest.  They cheat on tests, allow their parents to do their homework and make themselves sick with stress.


Don’t misunderstand.  I am all about achievement.  I want my students to push past their limits.  The only way I see to really break through is to be willing to fail, and fail extravagantly.   Here are my top four classroom strategies to support student failure and discovery:


Guide your students by telling them the result you expect but not how they should get there:
As a drama teacher I spend some time having my students learn to read a script.  Giving a line reading is when a director speaks the line for the actor with the preferred inflection.  People do this all the time.  It’s faster than having the actor work through the process of understanding.  But it has no more value for professional actors than it does in educational settings.  Giving a line reading keeps actors from owning the lines.  There is no discovery, no depth of understanding, no honest expression that happens when you are simply mimicking your director.  It works against the objective of telling a captivating story.  If you give your students a short rubric of expectations including the things you need to see as an instructor and then let them create out of their own experience, the result can be breathtaking.

I know, I know; what about the student who can’t do a project if they have to come up with too much of it on their own?  I have said many times that teaching middle school is a cross between herding cats and pushing chains.  They either bounce around like a high points pinball or lie there like a lump of lead.  That’s why I have three more strategies.


Ask a lot of open-ended questions without a “right” answer in mind. Listen to their answers and be prepared to learn from them.
This is one of my favorite strategies.  It turns students into teachers and vice versa.  When I ask a question in class, my students know by this point in the school year that I am game for anything that comes out of their mouths.  Even the inappropriate stuff can provide opportunities for learning appropriate social behavior.  The trick is never make them wrong.  “What if they are wrong?” You say.  There is no wrong way to learn.  If your math student gives the wrong answer, it is an opening to look at how he got there and is there another way?  I know several math teachers who are brilliant guides in the world of numbers.  Rather than hearing “nope” when an answer doesn’t solve the problem, students hear phrases such as, “let’s look at that”, or “let’s think about how you got there and see if you can modify your approach.”  The word “wrong” never shows up in the classroom.  It’s only the learning process that gets the focus, not the failure.  If we take away the stigma attached to failure, we will have an educational revolution on our hands.

The second part of this strategy has to do with keeping the teacher engaged.  On days when I don’t have a 5-Hour Energy drink handy I have to work extra hard at listening.  But as soon as I let go of listening for a “right” answer, my students tend to rock my world.  If what they say becomes valuable to me not as their teacher but as another human being, I will walk away from the exchange a richer person.  Kids say amazing stuff to me every day.   I have a group of 4th grade students who enter my class without preconception.  They know that what they imagine is only the beginning and I am willing to listen to their ideas even if it means inviting them to elaborate.  “But there’s no time for this fiddle-faddle” you say.  There are ways to make this sharing of ideas more efficient, and it is vital to their learning.  Break them into small groups and allow them to share ideas with each other, put a time limit at the beginning of class on all shares, give them a prompt and have them write in a journal for a few minutes at the beginning of class.  Most importantly listen to your students rather than the conversation in your head that tends to provide the running commentary.


Push them to their point of failure and beyond but lightly and with a sense of fun.
When first confronted with the idea of pushing to fail, students will often react with a confused expression.  This was my experience as an adult when I was working with a trainer.  She had me attempting to lift weights that were just outside my ability to complete a set.  I remember that she would say, “push to the point of failure.” Why not “push to success?”  Because lifting weights that are too light for you to fail means you will experience little or no muscle growth.  The same is true of our brains.  If we already know we can succeed, what’s the point?  Isn’t it more exciting to try something that has an air of possible failure?  For kids who treat school as if getting good grades is the objective (not so far-fetched), the only danger is burn out or boredom.  If you put classroom focus on the grade, learning will move at an unendurably slow pace.

It’s possible to become too serious about pushing your students to their point of failure.  Failing for fun means you attach no significance to the failure, only to the learning.  When the focus is on the learning, the grade loses its power.  Some might say this is a bad thing.  The grade is a motivator.  But when the grades fade into the background, the motivation changes.  The motivator becomes curiosity, or discovery or the challenge of mastery; all of which trump the motivation of a letter grade.  Make the challenges interesting, add a failure component, and success becomes sweeter and more lasting.


Give plenty of opportunities for them to choose to trash a creation.  Students should become accustomed to the idea that anything they create is able to be re-created even better.  There’s always more where that came from!
In the last decade there was a Doritos commercial that stated, “Crunch all you want.  We’ll make more.”  If we could approach ideas with this same mentality, the willingness to let go of the preciousness of a thought or a project or a paper would be liberating.  It would increase a student’s desire to write a 2nd or 3rd or 4th draft, look over the answers more completely and start over again without any tears.  We have to learn how to improve with gusto if we want to learn and grow.

I have been sewing since 7th grade when Mrs. Hulsey gave me a C in Home Ec because my stitches were so sloppy.  I know I really hate it when I sew and I realize I have sewn the wrong sides of a garment together.  I have to take out the stitches, read the instructions and try again.  Inevitably, I learn what to notice and I hardly ever make this mistake anymore.  But it took a few badly sewn items to learn this lesson.  Interestingly, not only am I better at avoiding this mistake, the care I take while avoiding the error keeps my stitches from looking sloppy.  Even though your students may balk at first, don’t be afraid to challenge them to do it again.  And, as always, keep it light.

Humor and a friendly attitude will keep a frustrated learner from going ballistic.  As teachers we have the responsibility to challenge our students to take the work seriously without taking themselves too seriously.  Guide, listen, push and encourage them to try again… with a smile.

5 thoughts on “Four Rules of Failure

Add yours

  1. HI there,

    Me again, the oxymoron – LOL, I just wanted to say thank you again for such a wonderful teaching post. My children are all in middle school and my son is trying out for the baseball team, but is not the best and he told me that he thought he would be cut tomorrow. So I shared your post with him and told him that it was okay to fail.

    A few weeks ago I posted about how impressed I was with myself for getting my daughter out of a pickle and downloading the Kindle Reader for her iPod so she could do a last minute book report, but after reading this post I realized that I really should have let her fail. Thank you for that, for putting these words where I could read them and gain great insight.


    1. TechFreeMom, you are very kind. thanks so much for the comment. It sounds like your kids and you have a great relationship and that, more than anything else, will be a foundation for them to feel great in their skin.


  2. Your example of sewing hit home, because I have learned a lot from my sewing mistakes as well, and when I spoke to my son about the potential failure of the baseball thing. I used cooking as an example; I reminded him of our bread baking a few weeks ago, where I did let him fail, after all the work of kneading and allowing the dough to rise etc, he baked the bread on 250, which of course was a failure, but not a mistake he will make again.

    I also told him of a teapot that I made once explaining that I spent days and days trying to perfect an imperfect design and finally in frustration I smashed the pot on the floor. I had a dangerously close deadline, but it didn’t matter because the failure allowed my to recreate the pot with the right foundation, which I learned from doing it wrong to begin with and the second pot took a lot less time because I didn’t have to spend so much time trying to make a flawed design work.
    Really, great post, thanks again!


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