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Day 07/05/2014

When Failure is Fearsome


I’ll never forget junior year of high school when I signed up for AP Chemistry, which was held at [a neighboring co-ed school]. Within a week I was in over my head. I went running to Mrs. Gordon, the Upper School head, to drop the class.

She said something to me that was quite correct, but not at all strategically worded: Failing at something would be good for you.

HA! I hightailed it out of her office — and out of that class.


That’s a comment I posted last week to a Facebook conversation with several classmates from high school. It started as a discussion of Carol Dweck’s research on mindset and its relevance to raising confident daughters. Almost immediately the conversation shifted to our own childhood struggles with confidence. Specifically, we shared how particular events at our all-girls school — usually comments by teachers — influenced our identities and senses of self, for better and for worse.

Though our 6-way conversation hardly constituted a scientific sampling, two striking themes emerged in every classmate’s comments:

One was that a piece of the confidence we have today as 40-year-olds can be traced back to the one or two teachers who saw us for who we felt we were. One classmate called these teachers her “game changers.”

The second theme was less affirming. Our perception of being typecast by teachers — through underestimation as well as overestimation — had negative implications for all of us, often persisting well past our school years.

Furthermore, that perception of being typecast — which sometimes had its roots in the comments of a single adult — revolved around two inverse experiences: each of us felt branded as either a consistent struggler or a consistent achiever. 

Those who were typecast as strugglers felt marked by the expectation of failure and so developed significant self-doubt. Only over time did they begin to see themselves as capable and restore their intellectual self-confidence. Those who were typecast as achievers felt marked by the expectation of success and so developed an acute fear of failure. Only over time did they learn to distinguish self-worth from performance and develop some tolerance for risk.

Mrs. Gordon was right. Failure at something would have been good for me, but there was no way on earth I was ready to risk it back then. Failure was to be avoided at all costs.

Mrs. Gordon offered no context for why I should entertain the idea of embracing the risk of failure. By the time I raced into her office in junior year, I had long operated under the belief that education is about performance and therefore the student’s job is to perform well. As a student, I was all about avoiding risks, so I had little grasp of the fact that genuine learning and genuine growth inherently carry risks.

Things might have worked out differently had I been able to appreciate that. I suspect that Dominic Randolph’s intriguing delta mapping proposal — ways of charting change over time — would have helped tremendously in my case. Educators who champion growth and change as well as performance help provide the context I needed to comprehend advice like Mrs. Gordon’s.

For all of today’s talk about “reframing failure,” are we as educators doing measurably better than Mrs. Gordon did, twenty-plus years ago? How might we create authentically teachable moments around failure? How might we create contexts in which students can experience “failure” as a real opportunity for deeper iteration, exploration, and understanding?

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