I’m going to keep it brief today. And it is my hope that this brief idea serves as a provocation for all you teachers who are tirelessly preparing your classroom and curriculum.

We talk a lot about setting our children up for success–and I know it’s with good intention. After all, one of the most important reasons we educate our children is to help them lead fulfilled and productive lives. What we often forget is that a fulfilled and productive life is not one that’s defined only by success. Instead, fulfilled and productive lives are often defined more so by how we respond to defining moments of failure.

With success oftentimes comes joy, elation, and pride; whereas failure is frequently accompanied by vulnerability, dissonance, and sometimes even shame. We prioritize the former in our classrooms–again with good intention–because we want our children to feel these positive emotions; we want them to develop a positive disposition towards learning. But by only prioritizing joy, elation, and pride–and by proxy, sending the implicit message that it’s not good to feel unsuccessful–we take away opportunities for children to find the inherent value in vulnerability, cognitive dissonance, and even shame. We rob them of the moments to understand what it feels like, and what’s more, we take away the moments where they can learn how to rely on their friends, family, and teachers to support them through moments of vulnerability, dissonance, and shame.

Sure, we need to make sure that our students experience success in our classrooms. Without experiencing success, they won’t ever realize it’s possible. But this has unequivocally turned into prioritizing success so much that so few of them experience the sometimes crushing experience that is failure. We all know those kids who are unable to cope with the uncertainty of a novel experience for fear of failure–or those students who rarely fail and are surprised and unprepared when it happens to them.

Failure not only builds our resilience; it makes success all the more joyful and fruitful. It adds value to the reflection process and builds intrinsic motivation. And if kids don’t learn how to experience failure and recover from it, they’ll fear failure and lead anxious lives, void of risk-taking and rich learning. As a result, they’ll lack the fulfillment and productivity we hope schooling will bring them. Their lives will become dull, diminished, and colorless because they won’t have the occasional dark feelings of failure to color and complement their successes.

“[Our children] are hardwired for struggle when they get here,” says BrenĂ© Brown, now famed shame and vulnerability scholar. “Our job is not to say, ‘Look at her, she’d perfect.’…Our job is to look and say, ‘You know what? You’re imperfect, and you’re wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging.’ That’s our job.”

It sounds like a radical idea, but we must set our kids up for failure in the safe spaces that are our classrooms. We must give them projects in which failure is anticipated, and why? We must do this not only to prepare them for the inevitability of failure, but also to teach them the lifelong lesson that they belong–because of and in spite of every misstep, mistake, failure, success, and imperfection that makes them… them.

“Show me a generation of kids raised like that, and we’ll end the problems, I think, that we see today,” Brown continues in her famous TED Talk on vulnerability.

I quite agree, Dr. Brown. This is the most foundational change we can make in our classrooms, and it might just start with (sometimes) knowingly setting up children for failure in our classrooms.

4 thoughts

  1. Nice, Paul. “Failure not only builds our resilience; it makes success all the more joyful and fruitful. ” Also, failure makes success authentic. By giving every kid a trophy, every time, the trophy itself becomes worthless.

  2. Very much agree! Our children expect that feeling of “success” even if it is not genuine or real. Society instills this. Create a safe learning environment so that students are able to learn from their mistakes and failures. Good perspective!

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