A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

When Failure Leads to Success: Students learning ‘it’s OK to mess up’ but not to give up

Amelia Turner crumples up a piece of paper that she had written a time she felt like a failure on and throws it away during Jane Thompson's 4th-grade at Emma B. Ward Elementary School (Anderson County).  Photo by Amy Wallot, Sept. 12, 2013

Amelia Turner throws away a piece of paper on which she had written about a time she felt like a failure.The exercise was part of Jane Thompson’s fourth-grade project on mindset and failure at Emma B. Ward Elementary School in Anderson County. (Photo by Amy Wallot)


By Susan Riddell
Special to KyForward

As students in Jane Thompson’s fourth-grade class recently finished their assignment, they wadded up their papers and tossed them in a trash can.

For Thompson, a science teacher at Emma B. Ward Elementary School in Anderson County, the assignment was then complete.

The task: Write about times you’ve succeeded and failed, then throw away the ones about failure.

“Somewhere along the way, some kids become ‘pleasers’ and develop a fear of failure, with failure being anything less than perfect,” Thompson said. “I promote an it’s-OK-to-mess-up attitude in class so students can see that if they don’t succeed, they can try again.”

It’s not uncommon in Kentucky schools to find teachers modeling this mindset.

Jessica Dilsaver, a sixth-grade science teacher at Rockfield Elementary School Warren County who prefers the word “discovery” to “failure,” encourages her students to value supported hypotheses as well as those that are not.

“My kids really like looking at science this way because it helps them to know that discovering ways not to do something is just as important as finding ways that work,” Dilsaver said.


Jane Thompson talks with her class about a time when they felt like a failure and who helped them. (Photo by Amy Wallot)

Bryan Womack, a science consultant with the Green River Regional Educational Cooperative, said the ability to process failed experiences as learning opportunities is a key practice within the Next-Generation Science Standards.

“Especially with the eight Science and Engineering Practices, students are encouraged to learn progressing science concepts in grades K-12 by engaging in lessons/activities that require them to ask questions and seek answers through the lens of experimentation of a scientist or engineer,” he said. “This includes not only to collect and analyze data but to also repeat/replicate results to validate their research or to improve design.”

According to Womack, students should also collaborate, share data and engage in authentic conversations with other students.

“In this process, discovery and/or failure will be a natural event that can occur within the context of each lesson,” Womack said. “This can be as important to overall learning as much as predicted outcomes.”

Lessons learned

There are many ways to work with students on failure and discovery. A popular one is connecting failure with people known for their successes.

Dilsaver begins each school year with an inquiry-based Thomas Edison narrative on his light bulb discoveries. “When others derided him for his failed attempts, he said ‘I have not failed; I’ve just found 10,000 ways it will not work.’ He needed these attempts to reevaluate his thinking and appreciate his final product,” she said.

There are numerous educational resources detailing Edison and Albert Einstein as important historical figures who drive the message that failure is OK. Michael Jordan, who was cut from his high school basketball team, is another example students relate to easily, according to Thompson and other educators.

“Several teachers use the Michael Jordan Nike commercial to have kids see that even successful people have experienced failure and went on to achieve great things,” Thompson said. “There are several things I include throughout the year. Sports is a good one. I look for instances where giving up or failure is not a choice that players and coaches make.”


Zachary Giles contemplates the mindset/failure assignment. (Photo by Amy Wallot)

Thompson said she highlights the successes and failures of the universities of Kentucky and Louisville basketball and football teams because her students are really interested in them.

She also creates lessons using the Olympics. Students study gymnastics and how athletes compete both individually and as a team. She might ask them if an athlete falls or does a poor vault on his or her first try, what must he or she do better on their second attempt. Then students will write about what they would do if they were that gymnast.

“Another area is the medal ceremony,” Thompson said. “When the expected gold medal favorite earns silver or bronze, we’ll discuss if that’s success or failure for the athlete.”

Thompson throws physics into her Olympic lessons, too. While touching on failure and success of the Olympians, she’ll also give them assignments highlighting the training and physics of events like snowboard, bobsleigh, ski jumping and speed skating.

David Grossman, a science teacher at T.K. Stone Middle School in Elizabethtown shows his students videos like the Michael Jordan Nike commercial and other famous failures. He also uses On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein.

He thinks it’s important to show students personal experiences of failure, too. Earlier in the school year, he told students of a summer incident when he fell off his ripstik, a narrow version of a skateboard. He routinely refers back to the incident metaphorically and has students write about corresponding topics and ways to improve.

“Ultimately, I realized that this couldn’t be an idea that we hit once, and we’re done,” Grossman said. “It has to be continually visited throughout the year as we seek to better students’ perceptions about the effects of hard work on learning.”

Other benefits

The teachers agreed that having a positive take on failure and discovery is beneficial across all curriculums, not just within science experimentation.

Breanna Blackburn

Students look on as Breanna Blackburn tosses her piece about failure in the trash. (Photo by Amy Wallot)

“Your academic success ties more closely to your work ethic than an innate ability,” Grossman said. “Failure isn’t final or fatal.”

Students who realize that are the ones who are headed toward college -and career-readiness,” Thompson said.

“Experiencing both failure and success is necessary to work toward a chosen career choice,” Thompson said. “My goal is for students to develop ‘stick-to-it’ and doing-one’s-best attitude. If they can do that, they can take classes in high school and college they might otherwise shy away from, keeping them from being whatever they want to be.”

Thompson said she is a more effective teacher thanks to her efforts to help students understand the positive nature of discovery and learning through failure. In turn, these abilities can carry over to other aspects of a student’s life, too.

This year Thompson is incorporating 18 statements into her classroom to promote a growth mindset. Students will read the statement, respond in a journal and participate in discussion.

“Sometimes one kid benefits, and sometimes the whole class benefits from this work,” Thompson said. “This is new for me this year, but I already see progress.”

Dilsaver said she, too, gets excited about helping students reach their goals and how teachers can influence that with discovery methods that erase negative connotations of failure.

“I want all students to be successful,” Dilsaver said, “and that begins with a positive influence and way of thinking from their teachers.”

Susan Riddell is a writer for Kentucky Teacher magazine, a publication of the Kentucky Department of Education.

Related Posts

Leave a Comment