The Value in Failure

For too long, educators have been known as graders and judges, but they are also nurturers and igniters.  Teachers comfortable in those encouraging roles have also likely grown comfortable with the idea of failure as part of the achievement cycle.  Because making mistakes is an inevitable part of learning a new skill, such errors should not be a source of embarrassment or humiliation.  Most learning has its roots in failure; we learn from our mistakes.  We’ve all failed at something, and we’re still alive to tell about the experience; failure doesn’t kill us.  Since failure is not only a part of life but also an essential part of the creative process, many people are looking at ways to “talk back” to the idea of failure as being negative and something to fear.  For example, Sheridan Blau calls confusion an advanced form of understanding because confusion means we’re thinking.  Instead of fearing confusion or failure, we might do well to find comfort and inspiration in knowing that from failure and confusion, innovation grows.

As we continue to rethink the idea of failure, we can begin to see failure as something to celebrate rather than to fear, as something to experience productively rather than as a final pronouncement of who we are and what we’re capable of.  When we make failure a speakable, de-stigmatized part of our lives, we can ask questions like What would our schools, workplaces, and communities look like if we weren’t afraid to fail? What would our world look like if we took bigger risks?

In my article “Got It Wrong? Think Again and Again,” published in Phi Delta Kappan (February 1, 2013), I argue that the best environment for learning is one that forces students to work through a succession of wrong answers and predispositions until they get to real learning.  You can read it online at

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