Students are exceedingly afraid of making mistakes. Three years ago, one of my six year old students anxiously cried, "I don't want to be the mistake girl!" while reviewing her math corrections. I was immediately stunned by her reaction - she was only a young girl, why did she already carry the heavy weight of failure?
Stanford professor of psychology, Carol Dweck, has offered valuable direction in my recent probing of this question through her experimentation of Attribution Theory, the study of a person's judgements on the causes of events and actions. In this experiment, Dweck assigned math problems to a group of elementary school children whom the school had identified as 'helpless', meaning that in the face of challenge, these kids lost their performance ability and sometimes would not recover it until days later. Half of the students were trained to attribute their mistakes to a lack of effort and were encouraged to continue trying. In other words, they did not label their errors as 'failures'. The results from these children revealed a growing ability of perseverance - they learned to persist in the face of failure, and eventually, to succeed. The other half of students however, did not receive such training and continued to approach each math problem under past pretenses. The results from this group of students showed no growth or improvement at all - in other words, they remained 'helpless.'
From this, Dweck concluded that, "Failure is information—we label it failure, but it’s more like, ‘This didn’t work, I’m a problem solver, and I’ll try something else.' Therefore, according to Attribution Theory, children believe they are failing when their efforts receive negative responses from others.
From a very young age, we are taught that failure is bad and is something to be avoided at all costs. We are also led to believe that failure deems us incapable or 'stupid.' Thus, it should come as no surprise that my 6-year old student was already so afraid to fail. Depending on our perspective, failure can stifle our progress or it can serve as the vehicle that drives us towards success.
So, how can we cultivate a positive approach to failure in schools?
One idea I have is to create a course that teaches students to persevere in the face of challenge and encourage mistake-making and problem solving as a way to accomplish goals. The class will provide students with purposefully challenging (but not impossible) tasks for their grade level, such as piecing together a complex puzzle under time constraints or assembling small units of furniture by a referring to a visual handbook. These challenging tasks are meant to ensure that students do not succeed upon first try. The objective is to allow students to fail, both individually and in groups, and encourage them to openly discuss their mistakes and brainstorm new strategies to accomplish the task at hand. As students persevere and eventually meet their goal, the class will facilitate conversations that enable students to realize that their ability is not fixed, but rather can change through diligent practice and teamwork. Through these reflections, students can move towards a belief that failure is a natural and constant consequence of attempting new challenges. And most importantly, students will learn to recognize that failure is a valuable opportunity for learning and growth.
When we learn how to fail, we learn how to succeed.