If you want your students to succeed, first you have to teach them how to fail. The idea may seem counterintuitive, but stick with me and you’ll see why it makes perfect sense.
Manu Kapur, a researcher at the Learning Sciences Lab at the National Institute of Education in Singapore is responsible for conceptualizing the notion of “productive failure.” What Kapur found was that by asking his students to solve problems that were beyond their abilities before teaching them the underlying concepts—by setting them up for failure—students were forced to activate prior knowledge to develop solutions, albeit incorrect ones. As a result, once Kapur then taught the concepts, those same students demonstrated a significantly deeper conceptual understanding and an ability to transfer that knowledge to unique problems in a way that went beyond the abilities of students who were taught through direct instruction alone.
The classroom is uniquely suited to the purpose of allowing students to learn through failure because it offers an environment where students can fail “safely.” Their failures don’t have to mean the end of the world. Instead, they can become learning opportunities and a way to not only build better conceptual understanding, but also persistence and determination. And qualities like these are more likely to determine how successful students will be in the long run. If you don’t believe me, just ask Angela Lee Duckworth, a psychologist conducting research at the University of Pennsylvania.
Duckworth studies competencies that can be used as predictors of academic and professional success. More specifically, she studies “grit,” which she defines as perseverance and sustained interest in long-term goals. What Duckworth’s research has found is that students who have grit are more likely to be successful, regardless of their IQ scores.
So how do you build grit? That comes back to what I said earlier about failure.
It’s unrealistic to think that students will never fail, and by not giving them a chance to experience failure—by trying to shield and shelter them from it—we’re erecting barriers to their growth. Of course there should be consequences for students who just refuse to put forth any effort. But even for students who try and just can’t quite get there, that sense of disappointment is what educators can cultivate to spur students to study a little harder or seek out the extra help they need.
Letting students fail doesn’t mean educators should allow serious emotional harm to come to a student, but rather that they should teach pupils how to try and try again, how to triumph in the face of adversity. It’s an opportunity to teach them that failure isn’t a reason to give up or to believe that they can’t do better next time. Teaching that means giving students a place to experiment with learning, letting them fail, and giving them more than one go at getting it right.