Embracing Setbacks: Classroom Strategies for Learning From Failure
When you hear the word “failure,” what comes to mind? Most of us would agree that any term or phrase referring to making a mistake carries a negative connotation.
As teachers, we naturally want our students to succeed—so embracing their failure can seem counterintuitive.
Failing is a part of learning. One of the responsibilities of a teacher is to challenge students to view failing as a learning opportunity instead of as a roadblock to their success.
In this blog, we will discuss why embracing setbacks in the classroom is important as well as helpful strategies for learning from failure.
Why is it Important to Embrace Failure?
Believe it or not, failure is often a better teacher than success. When a student fails, they have the opportunity to learn even more than they would have if they succeeded. Some of the key benefits of failure include:
It Promotes Creativity
When trying to succeed at something we previously failed, we don’t use the same approach. We recognize the need for a new strategy. This forces us to go back to the drawing board and search for improvements.
During this process, we are compelled to open our minds, welcoming innovation. Whether we realize it or not, each failure we experience is encouraging us to think a different way, step out of our comfort zone, and push our creative limits.
It Teaches the Value of Hard Work
While we may feel that things that come easily are more enjoyable, the truth is that the more we work for something, the more we appreciate it in the end. The value of hard work is something that is learned best by experience—and failure can be the best teacher.
When we fail, it can motivate us to do better and try harder. Through this process, we can begin to see the value of our efforts instead of focusing solely on the outcome. It strengthens our intrinsic motivation (the inner drive to complete a task because we find it enjoyable or challenging) and builds our self-esteem.
It Provides Life Experience
The famous phrase – “Experience is the best teacher” – can swiftly be modified to – “Failure is the best teacher”. When we fail, it helps us develop a deeper understanding of life.
While failing is often a painful experience, the pain we feel can alter our frame of mind and encourage us to reflect on the true nature of what we’re doing and the importance it holds within our lives.
Knowledge is accumulated through experience, especially when experiencing failure, and in time that buildup of knowledge becomes the key to succeeding.
It Builds Resilience
It’s inevitable that we will encounter a number of setbacks and obstacles in every aspect of our lives. No one is perfect, and neither is life. The first time we fail, it hurts and can be discouraging, however, bouncing back from failure teaches us to be more resilient in the future.
We need to be flexible to succeed, whether it means compromising with others or being willing to adjust our initial mindset. This teaches us that success takes effort and time, it doesn’t just happen overnight.
It Develops Empathy
Oftentimes, when we make any kind of mistake, we can’t help but feel slightly ashamed, embarrassed, or rejected. Even though we’re told that everyone fails, when it happens to us personally, that rationality goes out the window.
It’s difficult for us to forget the times we’ve failed, and while this may seem like a curse, it can actually be a blessing in disguise. Reflecting on how failure makes us feel can shape how we react to others who fail in the future.
Empathy is an important quality for leadership. Good leaders are able to identify and understand others’ feelings. When we can understand someone else’s struggles, we can offer support from a place of humility.
Teaching Students How to Accept Failure
Failure is inevitable, but it can actually be beneficial with the right mindset. That can be hard for anyone, at any age.
When it comes to developing strategies for learning from failure, the key is to help students understand what failure is and how it can be a positive thing. Try explaining failure in a different light by using a mini-lesson that answers the question – why is failure important?
In a mini-lesson, teachers can either share personal anecdotes or examples of failures that resulted in outcomes that were better than originally expected. For teachers who don’t want to share a personal story, consider showing the class a video that portrays the power of embracing failure.
After telling the story, or sharing one of the videos, teachers can expand their lesson by using different strategies for learning from failure. These will illustrate what failure means, looks like, and why it’s important.
Use the Learning Pit Metaphor
The learning pit metaphor is a simple and concrete way to explain how failure works. For students who are visual learners, seeing the concept of failure in a drawing or image can help them wrap their minds around the importance of “seeing the big picture”.
This metaphor breaks down the natural process of learning. It begins with an individual accepting a challenge. After accepting, the individual discovers that their goal may be more difficult to achieve than they initially thought.
This is illustrated by the visual of a pit or hole. Individuals are in the pit when they’re still trying to find success. In the end, the individual figures out how to make it out of the pit, and overcomes the challenge.
Encourage Failing Forward & Growth Mindset
Embracing a failing forward and growth mindset helps students retrain their thoughts or perceptions around failure. This shows them that each failure is a step in the right direction rather than an obstacle or setback that can’t be overcome.
Explain the Science Behind Failing
Showing students that there is actual science behind failure can help them see it as a practical and necessary way of learning. Explaining these scientific reasons can lead students to strive for success both in and out of the classroom.
While this may seem like a lesson that would be hard for younger students to grasp, there are many engaging videos and resources that break down the science of failing in a simple way.
Keep in mind that the classroom climate can have a large impact on students’ fear of failure. While mini lessons and other strategies for learning from failure are helpful, the way teachers approach failure on a regular basis will have a lasting impact on their perspective as well.
When teachers are intentional in the way they talk about failure or mistakes, it will remind students that it’s part of the learning process and ease their students’ fear of failure in the future.
4 Learning From Failure Activities
Once you have laid the foundation for failure as an important part of the learning process, you can introduce activities to help students understand how to embrace failure.
1. Make a Gallery of Historical or Famous Failures
Students can write a report about the significance of the figure and how their failure influenced their success. Tell students to include drawings or find pictures to create a gallery that highlights famous failures.
When the gallery is completed, teachers can lead a class discussion about the similarities and differences between the stories.
2. Introduce the R.A.I.N Technique
Teach students about the R.A.I.N technique:
R – Recognize what is happening.
A – Allow the experience to be there, as it is.
I – Investigate with interest and care.
N – Nurture with self-compassion.
Encourage students to use this technique and learn how it can help them accept failure as a normal process in the learning experience as well as process emotions of shame surrounding failure. Students can reflect on past or present failures they experienced.
Teachers can even encourage students to hold onto their R.A.I.N worksheets, which will allow them to look back and see how they progressed and reached their goals. Remember, these don’t need to be shared with the class. Assure students that whatever they write down will be private.
3. Have Discussions About Failure
Teachers can begin to incorporate more casual and frequent discussions about failure into their classroom dialogue. These conversations don’t need to be brought up every day or have strict boundaries.
Teachers can share a famous story or example during a morning meeting once a month or even a few times during the year. Being intentional in discussing failure in a positive way will help students become more comfortable with the possibility of making mistakes.
Keep in mind, when including these discussions in the classroom, it’s best, to begin with stories about other people (fictional characters, historical figures, famous people, etc.) Students can always open up about their own experiences, but it’s important they only do so when they’re ready and willing.
4. Choose a Fictional Character Failure Story
Fictional characters are another great way to illustrate the importance of failure to students. Have students choose a story where the character fails but eventually overcomes their challenges to reach success.
Teachers can use a variety of resources to help their students dissect the story including:
After reading the story, students can present their character analysis and what they learned to the class. They can do this by dressing up as a character, creating a digital poster, or writing a report. This activity is a perfect opportunity to tap into your students’ creativity and incorporate alternative assessments in your teaching.
Accepting Failure & Moving On
Being able to determine which students are struggling with embracing failure is key to helping them reach their full potential.
Every student is unique and while some are more resilient and more willing to challenge themselves, others may approach new opportunities with hesitation and anxiety. If a teacher is wondering which students may need more help with accepting failure and moving on, they can look for the following indications:
- They only participate in activities they excel at or know they will complete.
- They blame their failure on others.
- They harshly judge themselves after failing or feel overly ashamed/embarrassed.
- They avoid taking risks or participating in activities they’ve never done before.
- They give up instead of trying again after failing once.
Learning to embrace failure takes time, both in and out of the classroom. Teachers may notice that even after using lessons and strategies for learning from failure, some students need a little extra support and encouragement. This may mean talking to the student privately, reaching out to the guidance counselor, or even contacting their parents.
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