The importance of reframing failures
As educators, we understand conceptually how failure can help students learn, but do we really believe it? What would our classrooms perhaps look like if we were to allow for more failure—and even embrace it?
From the child’s perspective, Failures arecatastrophic, deeply troubling, embarrassing, frustrating, and intimidating.
As a mentor, you can play a critical role in helping youth avoid this mental trap. One of the best gifts you can give your child is a fresh perspective about mistakes and failures in life. In fact, you can teach them that mistakes are actually essential to learning, that no one gets better at anything without first making some mistakes and going through some struggles.
We often praise kids for doing something exceedingly well, such as breezing through a bunch of easy math problems. But getting a lot of easy answers correct means that the student hasn’t been learning. They’ve just been applying what they already know in a comfort zone. The real learning and growth happen when things get hard. Help your student understand that they should relish the times when they are challenged: that’s when they are learning the most.
Truly embracing failure in our classrooms is an antidote to shallow learning. For example, students in difficult math classes in Finland are expected to fail horribly at first, and the students and teachers don’t freak out about it. The students are given time and support to learn from their mistakes and make corrections. They understand that always getting the problem right or getting it right from the very start is not a prerequisite for success.
Tips for Reframing failures in Classrooms:
- Routine trial and error: When we teachers plan ahead for there to be failure, we create time for students to flounder, take missteps, or even totally fail.
- Inquiry-based learning: It uses failure to its best advantage. Inquiry is a learning activity in which the solution or end result is not known beforehand—even the teacher is unsure of what students will come up with.
- Feedback from failures: Teachers designing the inquiry-based learning, makes sure there are multiple opportunities for students to improve.
- Teachers not fearful of failure can encourage students to take risks, recognizing from the start that some of those risks will move students to the next level of learning.
- Teachers open to students failing will teach them to apply the process of “plan, do, study, act.”
There are other things you can do to help your students be more comfortable with, learn from, and even be excited by, their failures:
- Analyse mistakes together:If you are working with your child on a homework assignment or studying for a test, take some time to talk through the mistakes they are making.
- Honor what they did right, even in mistakes:Even within failures or mistakes, there are often many elements that went right.
- Talk about the feelings associated with mistakes:Sometimes students may be frustrated and disappointed when they’ve made mistakes, but that’s OK.
- Push your student to take on bigger challenges when they are ready:As noted earlier, the best learning doesn’t happen when a student is repeating something they’ve already mastered. The learning happens on the edges, when they are pushed into more challenging problems.
- Share your own failures and mistakes:Self-disclosure is one of the most important tools in the mentor toolbox. Tell your student about times where you failed at something or kept making a mistake. Talk about how you felt and how you overcame that mistake. Share how you analysed the problem, tried different solutions, and ultimately persevered.
- Encourage them to ask for help when they get stuck:Encourage your mentee to ask for help when they need it. Teachers, friends, parents, and you, the mentor, are all sources of support in learning from mistakes or overcoming a failure. Just like it’s important to make mistakes, it’s also important to ask for help.
- Be proactive:You don’t have to sit around waiting for your child to fail at something in order to start working on their mindset around challenges, failures, and mistakes. You can initiate conversations about mistakes at any point in your lessons. Ask your student about how they think about mistakes using questions such as:
- How do you feel when you make a mistake?
- How do you think other people see you when you make a mistake?
- Have you ever discovered something new from making a mistake?
- Has a mistake ever made you think more deeply about a problem? (You can start by talking about a non-academic setting, and then talk about how the lessons apply to academics.)
- And finally, be patient:Recognize that it may take some time for your child to get comfortable talking about mistakes or to apply more of a growthmindset to how they think about failures.
- When we teachers adopt and practice the power of failure in our classrooms, a low mark on a paper or project will no longer signify defeat and despair to our students. Instead it will signify an opportunity to go back to concept and discover the error in thinking. This encourages students to work together and engage in the iterative learning process of taking failure and making it a success.
By Ms. Tasneem Merchant (Special Educator, Sunderji Institute of Special School)
22nd December 2020