A Necessary Redefining of Failure

As babies and toddlers, people are encouraged to venture outside of their comfort zones in order to learn. While learning to walk, parents cheer their children on, motivating them to take one more step, regardless of whether or not they might fall. Children are expected to try new things including sports, academics, and general extracurricular activities. Yet, these children often fail in their pursuits as they are completely foreign subjects. Failure, then, exists as a learning tool. Parents expect their children to fail, but cheer them on to continue experimenting. This encouragement leads to the cultivation of raw determination to get up and try again and eventually succeed.

However, an opposite culture runs throughout their academic careers. For students in school, answers are either right or wrong. For example, the bubble was supposed to be “C” but the student filled in “D” and their grade took a hit. Instead of being rewarded for taking a chance and risking the possibility of failure, the student is penalized. As a result, students often give up or create work that stays on the safe side, thus guaranteeing a satisfactory result. Students develop a fear of failure despite the eventual success that failure can bring. For individuals to continue to thrive throughout their adult lives, failure cannot continue to be such a source of fear.

Illustration by Ben Murphy

The fear of failure discourages students from trying anything new, which can limit a student’s potential and can lead to a black and white mindset. Years of standardized testing and forcing students to fill in a bubble prompts students to believe that only one correct answer exists. In a 2015 issue of The Atlantic, Jessica Lahey, author of “The Gift of Failure,” wrote that students “sacrifice their natural curiosity and love of learning at the altar of achievement.” Despite the good grade, it is difficult to discern if a student actually cares about the subject in which they have just succeeded.

Instead, a student must be praised for sticking to difficult math or science problems or constructing creative essays. If the answer or paper has a poor result, that is viewed as failure. However, as Lahey says, “it is in these more difficult situations that a student is learning. They learn to be creative in problem solving. They learn diligence. They learn self-control and perseverance.” While it may seem a student simply put forth zero effort when they fail, the reality may be that they actually worked very hard. In most current education settings, a student’s hard work is ignored when it results in an “F.” If it were instead viewed as a signal to keep working hard and further improve, it would allow a student to keep gaining the skills mentioned by Lahey.

A fine line must be drawn between praising students for failure due to a lack of effort, and praising students for failure after an extensive amount of effort. To stray away from having a child think they are unskilled or unintelligent, society has created “effort” awards. I am not necessarily a proponent of these. While a student should be encouraged to attempt new strategies to produce their work and to use increasingly difficult structures and ideas in an essay, if the end result provides them with a lack of success, then they must simply deal with that. Even if they could have had high levels of achievement through following a set of guidelines and sticking to what they know, the point is that students must continue to foster problem-solving techniques and imagination; this cannot occur if they restrict themselves to a black and white mindset or if awards are handed out for everything.

On the first pages of “Being Wrong,” Kathryn Schulz explains, “In our collective imagination, error is associated not just with shame and stupidity but also with ignorance, indolence, psychopathology, and moral degeneracy.” Instead of causing students to harbor the idea that failure is equal to unintelligence, it must instead be viewed as a symbol to try again and use resilience. While a low grade may never look appealing to a university or graduate school, it could perhaps be the marker of a moment in which a student gained the most from an assignment or took a risk to try something new. A wrong answer must no longer be marked as failure but perceived instead as a signal of learning.  

Caroline Williams

Caroline Williams

Caroline Williams

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