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Learning by failure

Teaching strategies

Learning by failure

What to do when kids fail - turning failure on its head. For teachers, parents and teacher aides.

Learning by failure – a strategy that encourages students to fail repeatedly. Students are taught to normalise, expect, reflect and learn from failure.

Student in a school classroom being frustrated by failure.

One of the fundamental shifts in the education sector over the last 100 years has been in the way teachers are expected to treat students. It is commonly understood that for deep learning to occur, students need to be intrinsically motivated, engaged in the activity and to feel safe in attempting tasks that challenge their abilities. A side-effect of this cultural change has been a reluctance to allow learners to experience failure based on the premise that these experiences result in negative consequences (such as lowered self-esteem and motivation).i Pointing out a student’s failure (particularly in front of his or her peers) is considered extremely poor teaching practice. However, not all instances of failure result in negative consequences. In fact, failure can be exciting, fun and encouraging in certain circumstances and under the right conditions.

Failure should not be avoided, ignored, or shunned; it plays a vital role in the learning process and life in general. Learning to manage failure is the basis of building resilience and overcoming highly challenging tasks. Without this skill, students are more likely to give up and blame failure on external factors such as their teacher, their school or the perceived difficulty of the topic: students who do will say things like ‘this is a waste of time’ or ‘the teacher won’t help me’. Ironically, teaching students how to fail teaches them how to succeed!

Failure should not be avoided, ignored, or shunned; it plays a vital role in the learning process and life in general.

Whether learning to read, playing video games or testing a hypothesis in the lab – failure is inevitable. Learning to ride a bike takes more than one attempt; children fail numerous times before they are successful. When playing video games, teenagers repeatedly lose until they develop enough skill to overcome each challenge; failure is a necessary part of the process. When playing video games in pairs or groups, children rarely mock or belittle each other for their failed attempt. Each repeated failure is framed as an opportunity to learn. Video game motivation is intrinsic, sometimes to the level of addiction. Why do children choose to spend their leisure time repeatedly failing in video games and what can we learn from this phenomenon? Video games are highly visual and fast-paced. They provide regular micro-goals, they have achievable and specific goals, they include a system of rewards and they have an expectation that repeated failure is a normal part of the activity. All of these aspects (which make video games so addictive) are applicable to the classroom environment.

Whether learning to read, playing video games or testing a hypothesis in the lab – failure is inevitable.

Practically speaking, teaching failure is amazingly easy. Here are tips for how to do it:

  • Design activities that lead to failure so that students can experience failure and practise overcoming it. Initially this can be done by telling students beforehand that they will not be successful. Afterwards, discuss how to manage failure (such as the feelings of frustration) and how useful failure is as a learning tool.
  • Talk to students about ‘reframing’ so that instead of labelling their entire performance as a failure, they realise that only a small number of mistakes were made (particularly in multi-process tasks).
  • Teach students that failure is perfectly fine provided they learn from it.
  • Use a ‘strength-based’ approach (emphasise parts of their performance that were correct).
  • Use examples of failure from experts and emphasise how some experts fail for years (or decades) before succeeding.
  • Teach ways to minimise the possibility of failure in the first place, such as by taking a careful, planned, unrushed and systematic approach to all tasks.
  • Teach that finding the correct answer is simply an elimination process – failure is a way to narrow down potential answers.
  • Teach that failure is necessary. For example, sportspeople lose games all the time.
  • Teach that if you win every time, it means that the challenge is not difficult enough for learning to occur.
  • Teach positive self-talk such as ‘it’s good that i failed, now i know that is not the correct answer…’.
  • Teach that science is all about failure. Scientists need to fail – sometimes thousands of times – to find solutions to problems (like new medicines and technologies).
  • In activities such as solving a maths problem, teach that the correct answer is not that important. The most important part is understanding the general processes to solve the specific type of problem (in other words, which steps to take and how to complete each step). The second-most important part is applying the process as accurately as possible (not necessarily 100%). The final (and least important) part is the eventual answer – it is simply the end result of a multitude of steps.
  • Show students how they already fail in everyday life (such as in video games). Discuss why they fail, what they can learn from their failures and how they can apply those principles to their schoolwork.
  • Demonstrate how to manage failure with worked examples on the board and think-alouds.
  • Use the language of failure on a regular basis, such as:
    • ‘So that way didn’t work, but well done for trying, let’s try another way…’
    • ‘Great! The more times we fail, the better, it helps us get closer to the correct answer.’

Hint: there is some risk involved when implementing this strategy because some students may take offense or take your words out of context. Choose your words very carefully and make sure no one is embarrassed or singled out. If in doubt, avoid this strategy for now.

Foot notes:

  1. Vehkakoski, T.M. (2020). “Can do!” Teacher Promotion of Optimism in Response to Student Failure Expectation Expressions in Classroom Discourse. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 64:3, 408-424, doi: 10.1080/00313831.2019.1570547.

About the author

Adam Green is an advisor to government, a registered teacher, an instructional designer and an author. He is completing a Doctor of Education and was previously head of department for one of the country’s largest SAER (students at educational risk) schools. Adam is managing director of Fast Track Training Australia, an accredited training provider for thousands of teacher aides every year.


Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to check his article for accuracy, information may be outdated, inaccurate or not relevant to you and your location/employer/contract. It is not intended as legal or professional advice. Users should seek expert advice such as by contacting the relevant education department, should make their own enquiries, and should not rely on any of the information provided.

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