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Teaching Strategies: Let Students Learn From Failure

Jacqui Murray

Too often, students -- and teachers -- believe learning comes from success, when in truth, it's as likely to be the product of failure. Knowing what doesn't work is a powerful weapon as we struggle to think critically about the myriad issues along our path to college and/or career. As teachers, it's important we reinforce the concept through our teaching strategies that learning has many faces.

Here are ten teaching strategies to teach through failure:

Teaching Strategies: Use the Mulligan Rule

What's the Mulligan Rule? Any golfers? A mulligan in golf is a do-over. Blend that concept into your classroom. Common Core expects students to write-edit-resubmit. How often do you personally rewrite an e-mail before sending? Or revise instructions before sharing? Or have “buyer's remorse” after a purchase and wish you could go back and make a change? Make that part of every lesson. After submittal, give students a set amount of time to redo and resubmit their work. Some won't, but those who do will learn much more by the process.

Don't Define Success as Perfection

When you're discussing a project or a lesson, don't define it in terms of checkboxes or line items or 100 percent accuracy. Think about your favorite book. Is it the same as your best friend's? How about the vacation you're planning -- would your sister pick that dream location? Education is no different. Many celebrated “successful” people failed at school because they were unusual thinkers. Most famously: Bill Gates, who dropped out of college because he believed he could learn more from life than professors.

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Education pedagogists categorize these sorts of ideas as higher-order thinking and habits of mind -- traits that contribute to critical thinking, problem solving, and thriving. These are difficult to quantify on a report card, but critical to life-long success. Observe students as they work. Notice their risk-taking curiosity, how they color outside the lines. Anecdotally assess their daily efforts and let that count as much as a summative exam that judges a point in time.

Let Students See You Fail

One reason lots of teachers keep the same lesson plans year-to-year is they are vetted. The teacher won't be surprised by a failure or a question they can't answer. Honestly, this is a big reason why many eschew technology: Too often, it fails at just that critical moment.

Revise your mindset. Don't hide your failures from students. Don't apologize. Don't be embarrassed or defeated. Show them how you recover from failure. Model the steps you take to move to plan B, C, even X. Show your teaching grit and students will understand that, too, is what they're learning: How to recover from failure.

Share Teaching Strategies for Problem Solving

Problems are inevitable. Everyone has them. What many people DON'T have is a strategy to address them. Share these with students. The Common Core Standards for Mathematical Practice is a good starting point. Mostly, they boil down to these simple ideas:

  • Act out a problem.
  • Break problem into parts.
  • Draw a diagram.
  • Guess and check.
  • Never say can’t.
  • See patterns.
  • Notice the forest and the trees.
  • Think logically.
  • Distinguish relevant from irrelevant info.
  • Try, fail, try again.
  • Use what has worked in the past.

Post these on the classroom wall. When students have problems, suggest they try a strategy from this list, and then another, and another. Eventually, the problem will resolve, the result of a tenacious, gritty attack by an individual who refuses to give up.

Exult in Problems

If you're geeky, you love problems, puzzles, and the maze that leads from question to answer. It doesn't intimidate or frighten you, it energizes you. Share that enthusiasm with students. They are as likely to meet failure as success in their lives; show them your authentic, granular approach to addressing that eventuality.

Assess Grit

Success isn't about right and wrong. More often, it's about grit -- tenacity, working through a process, and not giving up when failure seems imminent. Statistically, over half of people say they “succeeded” (in whatever venture they tried) not by being the best in the field but because they were the last man standing.

Integrate that into your lessons. Assess student effort, their attention to detail, their ability to transfer knowledge from earlier lessons to this one, their enthusiasm for learning, how often they tried-failed-retried, and that they completed the project. Let students know they will be evaluated on those criteria more than the perfection of their work.

Let Students Teach Each Other

There are many paths to success. Often, what works for one person is based on their perspective, personal history, and goals. This is at the core of differentiation: that we communicate in multiple ways -- visually, orally, tactally -- in an effort to reach all learning styles.

Even so, students may not understand. Our failure to speak in a language they understand will become their failure to learn the material. Don't let that happen.  Let students be the teachers. They often pick a relationship or comparison you wouldn't think of. Let students know that in your classroom, brainstorming and freedom of speech are problem solving strategies.

Don't Be Afraid to Move the Goalposts

Even if it's in the middle of a lesson. That happens all the time in life and no one apologizes, feels guilty, or accommodates your anger. When you teach a lesson, you constantly reassess based on student progress. Do the same with assessment.

But make it fair. Let students know the changes are rooted in your desire that they succeed. If you can't make that argument, you probably shouldn't make the change.

Success is as Much Serendipity as Planning

Think of Velcro and post-it notes -- life-changing products resulting from errors. They surprised their creators and excited the world. Keep those possibilities available to students.

Don't Reward Speed

Often, students who finish first are assigned the task of helping neighbors or playing time-filler games. Finishing early should not be rewarded, or punished. Sometimes it means the student thoroughly understood the material. Sometimes it means they glossed over it. Students are too often taught finishing early is a badge of honor, a mark of their expertise. Remove that judgment and let it be what it is.

I leave you with five of my favorite quotes about failure. If you have one, please share it in comments:

"Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently." --Henry Ford

"I've failed over and over again in my life. That's why I succeed." --Michael Jordan

"I haven't failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that don't work." --Thomas Edison

"We learn from failure, not success." --Bram Stoker

"Success is the ability to go from one failure to the next without loss of enthusiasm." --Winston Churchill


Jacqui Murray has been teaching K-8 technology for 15 years. She is the editor/author of over a hundred tech ed resources including a K-8 technology curriculum, K-8 keyboard curriculum, K-8 Digital Citizenship curriculum. She is an adjunct professor in tech ed, CSG Master Teacher, webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, CAEP reviewer, CSTA presentation reviewer, freelance journalist on tech ed topics, and a weekly contributor to TeachHUB. You can find her resources at Structured Learning.