Is Emphasizing Failure a Mistake?

Photo by Tom Pumford on Unsplash


Alfie Kohn just kicked my educational philosophy butt!  In his blog post, “The Failure of Failure,” Kohn lays out a very convincing argument against promoting “productive failure” in the classroom and as a feature of progressive education.

“If you squint hard, I suppose that taking more time to figure something out could be described as a kind of failure, at least if you tend to think of success as immediately arriving at the right answer.  But that’s a weird way to conceive of meaningful learning.

On the one hand, such a description is too narrow.  To focus on the struggle (or temporary ‘failure’) that’s involved is to ignore most of what defines progressive or constructivist education.  Much more important are features like a curriculum built around open-ended questions rather than well-defined problems, and a change in the classroom structure that results in having students learn with and from one another.  ‘Productive failure’ misses all of this.

At the same time, that phrase is also too broad.  It lets in too much by implying (without evidence) that failure is a salient feature of how students experience a progressive classroom.  And it taps into a wider conservative narrative about the supposed value of failure and frustration—a recrudescence of the Protestant work ethic.”


As someone whose catch phrase is “Attempt—Fail—Analyze—Adjust—and Attempt Again” as a metaphor for how learning works, Kohn’s critique of failure comes very close to home.  I spend a lot of time talking to kids and teachers about how “failure” is a part of learning—a necessary part.  That making mistakes is what provides the brain with the opportunity to analyze, adjust, and try again.  And that it is in that analyzing, adjusting, and trying again that learning happens.

And I believe it.


Even after everything Kohn had to say about failure.

Even though I agree with almost everything he said in his post.


Kohn believes that many children who experience failure in school will develop debilitating interpretations of their mistakes that can quickly become a vicious cycle of self-defeating behaviors.

“The bad news is that coming up short may indeed be experienced by children as debilitating, particularly under certain circumstances.  As Deborah Stipek of Stanford University explains, that experience may change kids’ understanding of why they succeed or fail.  Unlike “children who have a history of good performance,” those who have learned to see themselves as failures are “more likely to attribute success [when it does happen] to external causes, and failure to a lack of ability.”  A kid who doesn’t do well assumes that if he does succeed, he must have just gotten lucky—or that the task was easy.  And he assumes that if he fails again, which he regards as more likely, it’s because he doesn’t have what it takes.

This quickly becomes a vicious circle because attributing results to causes outside of one’s control makes people feel even more helpless, even less likely to do well in the future.  The more they fail, the more they construct an image of themselves that leads to still more failure.  That’s particularly true when students are deliberately given overly difficult tasks in the name of “rigor.”  Or when the failure occurs in the context of intense pressure to succeed—or, worse, to defeat other students who are also trying to succeed.”


I can’t argue with any of that.  I see evidence of that vicious cycle all the time.  I see evidence of debilitating interpretations of failure.  In classroom after classroom.  In school after school.  In state after state.  The problem with unhelpful interpretations of failure is widespread in our educational system.


But I disagree with Kohn about one point.  While I think we should be doing everything we can to adopt structural changes to our education system and move towards “approaches defined by collaboration, discover, and open-ended questions.”  I don’t think that is sufficient.  We also need to move away from grade levels and our grading systems.  We need to empower teachers to address the social/emotional needs of our students.  And, we should be teaching learners powerful ways to interpret failure and how to move beyond habits of Attempt—Fail—Give up.

Alfie Kohn, I do not want to be part of the “fix the kid, not the schools” narrative that may be lurking in the grit and growth mindset movements.  I know our schools need radical transformation and I am standing for that and all that it entails.

But I am also not waiting for it.  And if I have a student in front of me that has unhelpful interpretations about their own capacity to learn I am going to use all the story editing techniques I can to help them come up with more empowering interpretations even if their schools are not yet designed to empower them.

And if I have a teacher in front of me, that hasn’t yet begun to experiment with moving away from grade level based standards and standardized curriculums, I am going to do everything I can to push their thinking and encourage them to engage in that experimentation.

I want to be part of an “Empower the kid, empower the schools” narrative that has both teachers and students engage in work that is challenging, meaningful, and designed to send the message that there is nothing wrong with not yet being excellent.  I want to ensure that educators are empowered to treat all learners to the ‘just right’ degree of challenge that allows the learner to experience struggle combined with success and understanding.  I want to empower educators to understand the underlying psychology and be alert for the subtle signals that demonstrate that a learner is at the impact of an unhelpful story and ensure that they know effective strategies for shifting the interpretation.

We are all learning and making mistakes is how we do it.

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