How Much Failure is Success?

I have to explain that the impetus for this post came from a combination of experiences that I couldn’t help but tie to education and a program that we have just revamped at our school.  The belief that was solidified for me was this:

We need to be invested in students enough to know when failure (and how much of it) is the best thing for them.  Allowing students to fail is not letting them down. Its building them up.

Scott YukeleleMy son has a desire to play the Ukulele. After discussing the idea of commitment and my wife finding a place for lessons, we got him started.  He did well with the basics, but began to run into problems as it became more difficult due to his lack of practice.  His teacher continually told him how good he could be if he would just practice.  My wife and I, acting as the parents who were going to make it right, tried to make him practice through constant reminders. These were met with multiple excuses or procrastination. The result was no progress at lessons and a teacher who was becoming frustrated at the lack of dedication. Any teacher who has reviewed the same information with a student for days (or weeks) on end due to lack of effort will understand.  After discussing this situation, my wife and I thought about making him practice by setting a rewards system in place. For example 30 minutes of practice gets 30 minutes of the Wii. Feeling as if this would be counter productive to our beliefs around intrinsic motivation we decided to do the complete opposite; give him the option of failing at the Ukulele. We:

  • sat my son down and had this talk with him about what he was currently doing.
  • had him clarify his goal; playing the Ukulele.
  • explained the connection between practice (work) and success.
  • reiterated his teachers belief in his ability.
  • connected how he felt about lessons to the feedback he received.
  • reiterated the connection between practice (work) and success.
  • asked him what made him feel better about himself; success or failure.
  • told him it was his choice. He could work and succeed or hang out and fail. The result of failure would be the end of lessons for lack of effort.

We shifted the responsibility to him.  We had provided everything he needed to succeed. He had to own the final step.  We could do and expect this because we have a genuine relationship/connection with him.


We revamped a class specifically designed to assist freshmen this year at our school.  It is populated by students who according to multiple data points have a decreased chance of success in the traditional model of school.  This class offers a higher level of support in the areas of academic, social emotional, and study skills.  The goal of the class was to keep students from coming into high school and getting in a hole too deep to get out of within their first semester at school.  We believed that with this support, a positive experience would give students the confidence they needed to increase their intrinsic motivation to succeed.  A good start often leads to a good end.  The class revolved around the following ideas (these may sound familiar). The teachers:

  • talked to the students about what they were currently doing.
  • had them clarify their goals.
  • taught skills and explained the connection between practice (work) and success.
  • reiterated their belief in the students’ ability.
  • connected students’ effort to the feedback (grades, comments, etc.) they received.
  • re-taught skills and reiterated the connection between practice (work) and success.
  • worked with students about what made him feel better; success or failure.
  • taught and showed students it was their choice. They could take the lessons, build habits, work, and succeed or hang out and fail.

They shifted the responsibility to the students.  The teachers had provided everything students needed to succeed. They had to own the final step.  The teachers could do and expect this because they built a genuine relationship/connection with the students.

Discover YourselfYes, teaching is part science and part art.  We have a slew of lists from research, (touted by experts) on what strategies work best.  Yet there are also classrooms where these “best practices” are used, but the effect is diminished and sometimes frustrating to progress. The “art lies in how well the genuine connections are made between the teacher and students. The weaker the connection; the weaker the learning because in the end, you have to know a person to know how far you can push them, how much you need to support them, and when you need to let them face failure to succeed.

My son and his Ukulele; he practices on his own, is reaping positive feedback, and has entered that self fulfilling loop of risk, work, and reward.

Those students; are no longer resentful of school and ready to fail.  Rather, they have tasted a small amount of success, are getting in touch with their ability, and beginning to realize the work and reward aspect of success.

How strong are the connections you make? How do you confront the issue of failure versus support?

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