Our schools are not set up to teach us to fail correctly. What may seem like an oxymoron is actually an incredibly important skill. We will fail. All of us. Every student and every adult, in big ways and small, all our lives. It is important, therefore, to take as much fear out of that process as possible, so that failure can become a learning experience.

With grades all tied so tightly to success instead of process, it’s easy for students to slip into a see-saw of self-image with self-worth on one balance and failure on the other. If they fail, even at small arbitrary tasks, they are worth less.

Martin Covington, an educational researcher, found that students fall mostly into one of four groups when it comes to failure, each with their own ways of coping.

  • Those who over-work to avoid failure at all costs. These students are successful, but at huge effort. It should come as no surprise that they have highly critical parents. They have a laser focus on their one goal – never failing. These over-strivers will under-state their own efforts (under-reporting practice hours or studying, for example) so that their success appears to be natural talent instead of grinding dedication.
  • Passive avoiders of failure. These students do not think very much of their abilities, but try to hide their perceived deficits by not trying anything they at which they think they can’t succeed. If they don’t try, they can’t fail, and self-worth remains intact.
  • Those who simply accept that they will fail. Often students with parents who criticize but do not build them up, these students are nearly impossible for a teacher to motivate. They often believe that they are incompatible with the school system, either through its design or their own deficits, and will focus their efforts on outside opportunities, like sports or hobbies or even risky behaviors, anywhere they believe they can shine.
  • Students who focus on success but not as the opposite of failure. These are the students who already have the ability to turn error into improvement. These are also often the students with encouraging parents who do not punish failure, indicating that this is learned behavior.

The things teachers can do to encourage students into this last category are simple, but powerful. Reward effort over talent. Make sure that students know it is the work they put into a thing that counts, not how many times they have to start over. Teach students to forgive themselves for failure until that is second nature. And be careful to be as supportive and engaged with each student as if they were the highest performer.