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  • Writer's pictureKate McDaniel

The Importance of Failure

Let’s think of someone who is really really good at something that is pretty difficult, say a concert pianist. You can watch their fingers move quickly over the keys and it might look effortless. But we know that this person wasn’t born with this ability. They took lessons. They practiced. They made mistakes and hit wrong notes and learned from it and kept going. They failed auditions. They failed until finally they had practiced enough and learned from enough of their mistakes that they were so skilled that they performed in front of a large audience. 


Failure is an important teacher, one that students can be often sheltered from. We understand. Classroom teachers are under so much pressure to get the content across that they don’t have time for failure, because failure takes time. It means the student has to re-do the experiment. But it also means that the students have to consider what went wrong and how to fix it. It means that the student took a risk in their thinking. It’s an opportunity to learn. It is also an opportunity to practice emotional regulation. Some students will react very poorly to getting the experiment wrong. It is a learned skill to face failure and not be afraid of it. 

When I taught introductory biology to college students and we covered dihybrid crosses, I would ask the students to tell me how to fill out the boxes before I gave them any instructions. They always got it wrong. I would show them where it became obvious that their method of solving had a flaw as they worked through the crosses. This opened up an opportunity for me to go back and share the correct method, leading students to understand why it had to be done that way. I never had a student get those questions wrong on the test. 

The easiest and maybe the most obvious way to allow your students the opportunity to fail and try again is with engineering projects. When you give students a goal and don’t give them directions, they often don’t know how to start. This gives students an opportunity to practice important skills including critical thinking, sharing ideas, taking risks, seeing things in new ways, trial and error, failure, and correction. All these skills can be experienced in an experiment as simple as building a bridge out of index cards to hold the most pennies. 

If you are more adventurous, you can assign students bigger risks. Before they layer those liquids in the density column, have them calculate the density. If they calculate the densities correctly, the liquids will layer nicely. If they make an error, it will become very obvious to them very quickly. 

Even if you don’t have time for the whole class to trial and error their way through an experiment, can you think of ways to allow them to fail a little bit and use that as a learning tool for critical thinking?

Scientists practice their skills for years and they still won’t get every experiment right. They say practice makes perfect, but we all know that practice makes progress. The more students are allowed to practice failing, the more likely they will be to foster the skills needed to succeed. 

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