Sorry, parents and teachers. Your students are going to fail. It happens to all of us.
The brightest and most advanced students you have will fail the greatest. Today, they are acing exams and getting straight A’s. This trend will not continue.
When will their first big failure happen? When they finally hit a teacher that challenges them in high school? When pushing for their college degree? When they land that big job?
What will they do when they finally fail?
Imposters and Avoiders
One day they will realize they can’t do it all and don’t have all the answers. What happens then?
They may exhibit avoidance behaviors. They are accustomed to praise for doing a job well. They will avoid things they can’t do perfectly. If they fear they can’t nail a project the first time, they won’t do it at all. This is a major roadblock to learning.
They will lose books they think they can’t read. Rather than missing a question on their homework, they won’t turn it in. They’ll find an excuse to leave the class instead of making an uncomfortable presentation.
If this keeps up, they will pass on a promotion to stay in a job they can do easily.
Imposter syndrome may kick in. They’ll come to believe that their intelligence and talent have been fake all along. Any moment now the class, the workplace and the world will realize they are a fraud. They’ll lose all self-confidence and become consumed with projecting perfection.
When they finally fail, they could be crushed to the point of quitting.
But what if they were good at failing?
Right now is the best time for students to fail. Let it happen in a comfortable place without consequences. Remind them that everyone fails.
In fact, failure has driven every invention ever. When our ancestors failed to stay warm on a frigid night, they learned to harness fire, clothe themselves and build shelter.
When flapping wooden flying machines failed to leave the ground, we mastered the aerodynamic wing.
When you fell on your face as a baby, you kept getting up until you learned to walk.
Success and learning aren’t about getting everything right. They’re about what you do when things go wrong. And they will, so let’s prepare students now to be excellent at failure response.
How can you help your students fail constructively?
Success is not perfection. Avoid setting 100% as a goal every time. Highlight lessons learned along the way and growth opportunities in the form of mistakes.
Give Mulligans. Expect revisions. Accept rough drafts. Critique a project or a paper, and then grade the second result.
Let them see you fail. You don’t know everything. Don’t be afraid to come back and do it better the next time. Give them stories of lessons you’ve learned from failing.
Enjoy challenges. When you hit a brick wall, appreciate the craftsmanship. Relish in the fact that you get a chance to scale or break through this thing. Obstacles are opportunities. Easy roads are no fun to hike.
Don’t reward speed. Students are trained to see finishing early as a good thing. It’s not a race. Rushing through material shouldn’t be celebrated.
When asked what it felt like to fail one thousand times before inventing the light bulb, Thomas Edison said, “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.”
Reacting positively to failure is an essential skill for successful people. Heather Schultz and Nicole Sweet of East Valley School District’s Planned Enrichment Program define FAIL as a First Attempt In Learning. Their non-graded one-day-a-week program for highly capable students emphasizes creative thinking and responding to challenges. They want their students to be comfortable being uncomfortable.
Failure is inevitable, unless you’re not attempting difficult things. Successful students must exit school confident they’ve failed before, will fail again and will overcome like they did last time.