Failure: Re-Imagined

One of the lessons I always harped on with my students before I escaped being a Language Arts teacher was the difference between denotation and connotation.  The line “I hope you don’t love your mom the same way you love the cat or Snickers bars” always got a laugh.  The students always had a hard time with the idea that words mean one thing by the book and possibly an entirely different thing out in the wild.

On the other hand, there are words that you just don’t know what it should mean.  Ten people can use it, and they all mean something different.  Let’s say hello to failure.


When some use it, it means inadequate; others mean broken.  Sometimes, people mean disappointing.  Almost always, whatever definition they mean has a negative connotation.

Failure has a bad reputation. It is unwelcome in some homes where perfection is demanded (and student’s souls are crushed).  It is wielded as a weapon by teachers to make students do as they are told.  It is a label that causes some students to give up on school at all.

My Fellow Americans:  failure can be the best friend that  you ever had, that your children ever had, and that our society was built on.  Failure is the fire that sharpens and hardens us to be better than we ever thought we could be.

Our response to failure helps to determine our future.  If we embrace failure and learn from it, we will grow and flourish and accomplish the unthinkable.  If we reject it and run from it, it will haunt us and constrain us every day of our lives. Jeff Stibel (2016) explains that “most people understand that you learn from mistakes, but not many realize that it is far more instructive than success.”

Schools should be places that failure is appreciated and built upon. If we can instill in students a desire to try any big move to see what the results could be, there is no end to the possible outcomes.  Berger (2014) relays a quote from Keats that says “Failure is, in a sense, the highway to success, inasmuch as every discovery of what is false leads us to seek earnestly after what is true” (p. 201).


Lahey (2015) explains that “the failure our children experience when we back off and allow them to make their own mistakes is not only a necessary part of learning it’s the very experience that teaches them how to be resilient, capable, creative problem solvers” (p.3).  Berger adds that in certain sectors of business “failure has come to be recognized and appreciated as an unavoidable–and often highly useful–step on the road to creativity and innovation” (p. 201).

Unfortunately, this thinking runs counter to the make up of school.  To be honest, I am sadly reminded of how much I agree with the avoidance of failure every time I have an assignment that I don’t know exactly what the professors want in order for me to receive an A.  We don’t like to fail; we hate to fail.

Stibel (2016) tells us that “by the time we reach adulthood, social norms have driven most of us to avoid failure—especially public failure—at all costs…Society’s bias against failure is pronounced.” Schools are part of this indoctrination process, as are parent’s responses to failure.

How do we transform this attitude?

Teachers (and parents) must adjust to the idea that failure is a good thing that leads to better things. Tara Haelle (2016)  explains that students recognize our attitudes toward failure and it colors their thinking about intelligence and ability.

As educators, we can set up our classrooms as safe places in which to experiment.  Where we focus on the process rather than the product.  Our lessons can revolve around the steps to a solution rather than care only about right or wrong answers.

success failure.jpg
This exemplifies the most commonly held view of failure.

We must be careful that we don’t go to far.  Tara Haelle (2016) also writes that “taking the learn-from-failure message too far might backfire eventually.”  We must strike a balance where failure in pursuit of a goal is used to learn and grow rather than have students not even try.

Berger (2014) quoted David McCullough as saying “climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air, and behold the view” (p. 181).

How can we embrace failure while simultaneously striving for excellence in the classroom?

Berger, W. (2014). A more beautiful question: The power of inquiry to spark breakthrough ideas. New York, NY: Bloomsbury.

Lahey, J. (2015). The gift of failure: How the best parents learn to let go so their children can succeed. New York City, NY: Harper.

Haelle, T. (2016, May 8). Talking About Failure: What Parents Can Do to Motivate Kids in School. Retrieved July 27, 2016, from

Stibel, J. (2016, March 25). How Bringing Failure Into Your Workplace Can Maximize Success. Retrieved July 27, 2016, from


[Untitled illustration of a Mountain with Churchill quote]. CC BY-SA 3.0. Retrieved July 27, 2016

[Untitled illustration of Hurdles with Branson quote]. CC BY-SA 3.0. Retrieved July 27, 2016

[Untitled illustration of success and failure signs]. CC BY-SA 3.0. Retrieved July 27, 2016

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