Failure is not an option. Unless it is.

finger pointing
Really, it’s not pointing at you.

In our book, Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, my co-author Gary Stager and I took what I would consider a fairly even-handed view of the current fad of celebrating “failure” in the classroom.

I’m starting to reconsider a more radical stance.

In the past few months, I’ve been seeing more and more articles about how kids should embrace failure as a path to learning. Mottos like FAIL (First Attempt At Learning), “Fail your way to success”, “Fail early, fail often” are being held out as examples of how students should be encouraged to be fearless and not let challenges or mistakes stand in their way.

I understand the intent. I’m all for the iterative design process where roadblocks or challenges are celebrated as learning opportunities.  Of course people learn from mistakes, if there is time to actually ponder those mistakes and try again.

Here’s the problem. It’s the word “failure.” Failure means a VERY specific thing in schools. The big red F is serious. In school, failure is NOT a cheery message to “try, try, again!”, it’s a dead-end with serious consequences.

Using this loaded word to represent overcoming mistakes, hurdles, challenges, detours, etc. is confusing and unnecessary. Teachers cannot talk about failure as a challenge, when failure also means judgment – the worst possible judgment.

And yes, I do just mean teachers. Specifically, teachers who are grading the work where the “failure” may take place.

For others, it’s not the same. I’m not saying that a teacher has to correct EVERYONE’S language, just your own – if you are the person with the power to grade. Parents, librarians, club leaders, even the students themselves can choose to use this word. If you aren’t grading a child, then the word is not as loaded. If a child wants to call something an “epic fail” then that’s their choice and represents their ownership of the process and the word.

Is this just silly semantics? I don’t think so. For example, there is plenty of research that students confuse feedback on their handwriting with feedback on their writing content and therefore their thinking. They hear “bad writing” and “bad writer” as one and the same. Kids mistake lack of speed at math worksheets with being unable to “do math.”  Do students hear “fail” and “fail” and get confused? Are you sure this can NEVER happen? If there is even the slightest chance of that, and there are so many other good words to use, why not choose another word?

Call them challenges, bugs, roadblocks, unexpected events, hurdles, mistakes, prototypes, drafts, or first tries. But why use the ONE word that means the ultimate, often unrecoverable, most humiliating judgment in school?

If you want to empower students, why choose a word that so forcefully communicates the ultimate teacher-power, the power to grade. Why privilege a word that reminds both teacher and student that ultimately, the teacher has the power to judge their work, despite cheery homilies or posters to the contrary.

Why spend time and energy trying to rehabilitate a word that has such baggage?

I know you may be thinking that students are smart enough to figure out the difference between “failure” that happens while a project is in process and “failure” that goes on your permanent record. But how does one make that distinction, except for the fact that it’s a “real” failure whenever the teacher decides it counts. Do we just have to hope that students grasp that subtle point?

I may want to fight to rehabilitate the word “failure”, but as long as it’s being used by school in its current form, there are better ways to communicate with kids.


Also published on Medium.

5 Replies to “Failure is not an option. Unless it is.”

  1. Agree 100%–educators should use language which clarifies ideas, not confuses them (and he students hearing the words).

  2. Thanks for this article Sylvia. I believe I remember hearing Gary say at the 2013 World Maker Faire that failure is just deficit framing for iteration. The Agency by Design project is starting to think differently about the word failure in much the same way you express above. Personally, it’s frustrating for me to see people in privileged positions who may not have ever experienced the consequences of real failure promote failure in the classroom as a way forward.

  3. Sylvia, you are absolutely correct (as usual!) to differentiate between “failure” – so vital for learning and the toxicity of the word “failure” in the hyper-sensitive accountability culture of schooling. Nowhere in schooling (or politics!) can we use the word “failure” without risk. However, without the experience of not succeeding with our first intuition, no deeper learning takes place. And that is quite simply the core goal of all education – a deeper, more enduring, more important and effective experience of learning. In the words of Alvin Toffler:
    “The illiterate of the 21st Century will not be those cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”

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