Victor Hugo once said that there’s nothing in the world more powerful than “an idea whose time..
Making mistakes used to be a bad thing. It was, at one time, equated with weakness or apathy, or worst of all, stupidity. This was often especially true if you were a student. But it was a long time ago, and thankfully things have changed.
Nowadays, if there is one place that the term “useful failure” is setting an honoured place for itself, it’s in our classrooms. It’s great news for learning, and for our learners.
The methods we can use for helping our kids with embracing mistakes in the classroom are many. The point, however, is that we want to dispel the age-old idea that failure is a negative thing with harmful connotations in learning. Instead, we want to allow students to realize failure is the best opportunity to build up their confidence and engage them in powerful learning and teachable moments.
We’re going to give you some solid strategies for guiding students toward adopting this mindset for school and for life. First, though, let’s do some light reading.
The Power of Failure
Perhaps one of the most compelling articles written on the subject of encouraging mistakes in the classroom was written in 2015 by Helen Snodgrass. The article is titled In My Class, Failure is Not an Option—It is a Requirement. Already, just from the title, we understand how passionate this educator is about the idea of turning the word “mistake” into the word “opportunity” or her kids. She explains it this way:
“When students first walked into my classroom this fall, many of them immediately noticed a large quote on the wall above the whiteboard:‘In this class, failure is not an option. It’s a requirement’ … this does not mean that I simply sit back and watch students grasp at straws as they tackle really difficult material. What it does mean is carefully selecting tasks for students to work on that might not have one clear answer or only one possible approach and then providing them the space and the skills to work through the challenge and reflect on their process and struggles as they go.”
This passage brings up a few encouraging points about embracing failure and mistakes in the classroom. Firstly, it’s an indirect way of personalizing a task. After all, most students who are encouraged to take on challenges and consciously provided margin for failure will quite willingly forge their own pathway to find the answer. This is especially true if failure is demonstrated by the instructor as integral to the learning journey.
The second is that the idea of useful failure ties directly into inquiry-based learning. For instance, when we fail, questions usually arise such as:
- Why did we fail?
- What did we not consider?
- What questions didn’t we ask that we can next time?
- Where are other routes we can take to get more information?
- Whose experiences can we refer to for guidance?
These are just a few examples, but they are all part of the journey of inquiry-based learning. In such compelling activities, these questions go hand-in-hand with ones learners ask about the subject matter itself. The idea of failure then sort of fades away, and all questions simply become part of driving inquiry forward to create meaningful learning experiences. Also, the ability to adopt failure as an opportunity as opposed to seeing it as a final outcome is a hallmark of great critical thinking.
We want to allow students to realize failure is the best opportunity to build up their confidence and engage them in powerful learning.
Lastly, embracing struggle leads to insightful reviews and debrief sessions, which we know from Solution Fluency as being a vital part of all learning. Debriefing gives students the opportunity to look at their own outcomes and determine what was done well and what could have been done better. In our own experience, once students have done this, they start to pre-debrief by themselves and make their own solutions and products better. When this happens, students truly are taking responsibility for their own learning.
Tearing Down Scaffolding
She goes further in a discussion of the idea of scaffolding tasks. While a necessary teaching objective, her argument is that sometimes it is done to a degree that often sucks the realism out of learning:
“While scaffolding can be a very good thing in the classroom, it is sometimes taken to mean that all material must be broken down into such small and simple steps or chunks of information that students are all able to be successful every step of the way … Students, as a result, often get the message from very early on in their education that if they do not immediately grasp how to solve a problem or get the right answer, they must not be very smart or good at that particular subject. With years of training in this way of thinking, it comes as no surprise that students often respond to challenging work by either immediately asking the teacher for help or by giving up.”
So how do we scaffold effectively and provide room for mistakes as opportunities in learning? Perhaps part of it is, like Helen says, consciously creating room for struggle and failure. We can be there to guide students to get back on their feet and try again when they fall, much like helping a child learn to walk or ride a bicycle.
7 Ways of Encouraging Mistakes in the Classroom
- Make room for it
- Model failure
- Provide immediate feedback
- Embrace messy learning
- Think of learners as your allies
- Talk to them
- Encourage them
1. Make room for it. Perhaps the single best way to begin adopting useful failure in your classroom is to make sure students know it’s allowed. Helen placed her quote about failure so it was the first thing students saw. Explain to your learners that making mistakes will be a required part of their time both in school and in life. What they do with those mistakes is what will be important.
2. Model failure. Too often teachers are seen as the keepers of the keys and the guardians to the doors of all knowledge. As such, they’re expected to approximate perfection to the best of their ability. After all, some say, who wants to learn from a teacher who makes mistakes? But this isn’t realistic. Teachers are humans too, and they make mistakes all the time. That’s why they’re in a perfect position to demonstrate how beneficial such instances can be for real learning.
3. Provide immediate feedback. It can be an incredibly powerful learning motivator. The benefits of highly constructive feedback in the moment are psychological too. Included as a consistent factor in the learning journey, it allows students to get over mistakes easier as well. It has more than just benefits tied to formative assessment strategies.
4. Embrace messy learning. It’s a non-linear and constantly transforming journey for all of us. Einstein said it best when he suggested anyone who’s never made a mistake has never tried something new. And if we can’t make mistakes when learning new things, then when can we make them?
5. Think of learners as your allies. They are with you every day and are beside you at every step. You keep each other company and support each other in many ways. Most of all, you are learning together. Such is not the time for separation or an “us and them” mentality. Show your readiness to struggle, fail, try again, and succeed as a team.
6. Talk to them. Sometimes when your learners make mistakes, they’ll get stuck and feel lost. Finding the next step to take can be hard when you’re so immobilized. This is the time to make sure the lines of communication are wide open. Ask them how you can help or what they need from you at that moment. The quality of their answers might surprise or even inspire you.
7. Encourage them. No matter what mistakes they make, they can find a way over them. Sometimes all it takes is just a little nudge in the right direction. Our learners are dealing with tremendous social and personal pressures. Sometimes making a mistake can seem like the end of the world for them. You’re there to tell them it’s not; actually, it’s the beginning of a whole new journey.
Editor's note: This post was originally published in 2019 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.
Originally published May 3, 2019, updated September 21, 2021