Failure: The Key to Student Success

Side view portrait of little boy leaning at desk with teacher and classmates in background

“I can’t!”  As of yesterday, this little phrase joined a list of words and/or phrases that are off-limits in our household.  It joined the ranks of “I’m bored” and a few other taboo utterances that I cannot appropriately mention here.  

Here is how the story goes…

“I can’t!”  my three year old whined as she struggled to pop the errant head back on her naked doll.  Admittedly, she was attempting a difficult task.  This particular doll’s head often fell off and was tricky, even for me, to return to its rightful place.  By the time she was making this declaration of not being up to the task it had already been a rough day!  The school nurse had called the day before to wish me a happy weekend and to say, “Oh, by the way, your daughter is one of five other girls in her classroom that have head lice.”  We soon discovered the little critters on the three year old as well.  I had spent most of the day cleaning mayonnaise (surprisingly, a very effective head lice treatment- but that’s a post for another day) out of my daughters’ hair and stuffing every article of clothing and bedding I could find into my very tired washing machine.  I did not have it in me to put that doll’s head on one more time and I decided it was the perfect moment to teach my daughter a little lesson about grit.  After a little talk about perseverance, I sent her upstairs to solve the headless doll dilemma for herself.  I heard some crashing, some thumping, some crying (okay… a lot of crying).  I left her alone except for  the occasional word of encouragement… “Persevere!  You can do it!”  By mid-laundry load number five, I had completely forgotten about the whole thing. Suddenly, I heard the patter of little feet flying rapidly across the room towards me.  “I did it!” she yelled proudly.  I don’t know how she did it.  I didn’t ask.  Nor did I go upstairs for a long while.  I wasn’t sure what things would look like up there.  It didn’t matter.  She had persevered through a problem.  And… I would not have to put that head back on that poor doll ever again!  Success!  

This incident got me to thinking about the students in my classroom.  Students sometimes say “I can’t” or “This is too hard.”  Those student comments always elicit in me a desire to make some kind of change, to help students reverse that self-defeating mindset. Recently, while watching TED Talks Education I was particularly moved by the ideas of Angela Duckworth, a psychologist studying self-control and grit.  Check out her TED Talk here. Through her studies, she has identified one trait that transcends all others in determining a person’s ability to find success:  grit.  Talent, IQ, and socioeconomic status mean nothing if a person is unable to persevere through challenges.  Duckworth also mentions the work of Carol Dweck.  In her book Mindset Dweck speaks about a growth mindset or the idea that the ability to learn is not fixed, that it can actually change with effort. When a student says, “I can’t” they are speaking from a fixed mindset:  the belief that no matter what, they aren’t capable of being successful at the task at hand.  

A large part of teaching students .to switch from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset is the celebration of failure.  The founder of the tech organization Girls Who Code, Reshma Saujani, suggests throwing failure parties to celebrate the notion that you have to fail to succeed.  Students will fail and… we want this!  “Failure,” as Henry Ford put it “is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.”  We must build environments in our classrooms where failure is expected and celebrated!

With this in mind, I have decided to throw a Failure Party every week!  I started this week with a well-known person who used grit to persevere through many failures: Henry Ford.  The children’s book, The Inventor’s Secret:  What Thomas Edison told Henry Ford by Suzanne Slade, does an excellent job depicting Ford’s struggle and eventual success.  After the party, we posted  Henry’s photo on the newly created Epic Errors wall.  As a class we wrote a small summary to accompany the photo. epic errors wall

Week 2:  Michael Jordan.  As a class we will watch Jordan’s Failure Commercial and then read the article “Michael Jordan Succeeded Because He Failed.”  Of course, Jordan’s photo and class summary will be added to the Epic Failure wall.

Week 3:  Kate DiCamillo. DiCamillo is the author of our current classroom novel Because of Winn Dixie.  In addition, DiCamillo is currently the successful author of the Newbery Medal book The Tale of Despereaux, among many other popular books.  She has said, “I didn’t have to be talented.  I just had to be persistent.”  Her first book was rejected nearly 400 times!  In this video DiCamillo discusses her many failures.  We will watch the video as a class, write our summary, and she will be added to the wall!  

Weeks to Come:  My hope is that sometime mid-year I will share one of my own epic errors with the class.  I also plan to invite school staff members to share with the students. I will then encourage the students to write about their own epic errors and submit them for a possible Failure Party. 

Now… Here’s hoping I can keep that open mindset as I return to the head lice battlefield that is currently in my home!

Yes, I can!  




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