Education Resources: How to Learn From Failure


You should fail.

This isn’t the first bit of advice we give our children, friends, or students. In fact, if we heard our child’s teacher utter these words, we might be appalled.

Yet failure is a lesson many education professionals insist is invaluable when it comes to the success of today’s learners—and it’s a trend that’s gaining traction. 

University of Texas at Austin Psychology Professor Art Markman has written a new book covering failure with a telling title: “Smart Change: Five Tools to Create New and Sustainable Habits in Yourself and Others.”

For those familiar with Markman’s work, it’s another stroke of genius, but as Education Week’s Larry Ferlazzo notes in a recent Q&A, the implications of “Smart Change” extend even to the classroom. His commentary about teaching students to fail—and more importantly the different types of failure—are more than insightful.

Markman first distinguishes between three types of failure. The first deals with failing due to a lack of preparation, the second due to a simple mistake that occurs despite great effort, and the third occurs due to negligence—laziness, apathy and so on. While the first two types are acceptable, the third never is. However, when a student understands why they are failing—instead of simply knowing that they failed—the correction process will be much more effective in similar issues that will inevitably occur later in life.

One practical technique to build on this idea is to offer more quiz and test corrections. If a teacher neglects a student’s mistakes, not only will that student miss out on important information, they will mistakenly assume that nothing can be learned from them.

quote2The Chronicle of Higher Education published a similar article* in May by Anne Sobel, a lecturer in residence at Northwestern University in Qatar about failure on college campuses in a film class.

Her techniques as a professor include three “reminders” that failure is encouraged—on the first day of class, at midterms, and at finals. These times include quotes, TED Talks, and personal anecdotes on failure and time for reflection.

In addition, Sobel assigns a three-week film project which is evaluated not on the final one-minute video, but on preparation, organization, “supporting each other, solving problems, and keeping a positive attitude during stressful moments.” She even includes a grading category called “Execution vs. Level of Difficulty”—a measure of effort in a field that demands the utmost creativity.

Finally, Sobel and Markman’s philosophies intersect in that failure should always be reflected upon and never ignored. Otherwise, this would be to pass up a tremendous opportunity to learn.

While we want to succeed in the classroom, learning indeed occurs even if success isn’t always reached.


Read the rest of the Q&A and let us know what you think! You can follow Larry on Twitter @Larryferlazzo or send him an email at Follow Ed Week on Twitter @educationweek and subscribe to the blog via email.

*Sobel cites developmental psychologist and UPenn associate Professor Angela Lee Duckworth and Tony Wagner’s “Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World.”