The Benefits of Failure

My wife and I were doing some research into how education is handled in various countries when we ran across some interesting statistics. Basically researchers took middle school age children from a bunch of different countries and tested them in mathematics. The US children did very poorly compared to the rest of the developed world.

However, the researchers went a step further and asked the children to rate themselves in mathematics. The US children consistently ranked themselves higher than the children in the countries who were actually more skilled in math. So while the US wasn’t the best in actual mathematics, they are the best in teaching students how to feel like they are good at mathematics

Obviously giving students self confidence is of tremendous value. I believe that the art of teaching comes down to arranging lessons so each one builds on the previous and students use small successes to catapult themselves forward and small failures to help motivate them to try harder.

Failure is still a very important part of learning and if children are never allowed to fail, they are being done a great injustice. If you never fail, it is difficult to really understand how you need to grow and improve.

I attended a seminar at Harvard a few years ago that discussed the changes in education caused by the Internet. One of the professors talked briefly about how we need to be careful to not violate the privacy of the classroom because it is important to give students a safe environment to fail. She mentioned that at Harvard, many would fail for the first time in their lives and it was important to give them the experience in a “safe” environment.

Small failures are vital to the learning process. I am not saying that you should try to fail, but if you avoid situations where failure is a possibility, you are avoiding the areas where you have the greatest potential for growth.


  1. DeathToFailure! says

    There must be some really serious problem in the educational system and in the families if students as late as attending Harvard have to lean to cope with failing.

    Other thought: What if “failure” itself just becomes meaningless because teachers and students alike explore the world of the subject? For a fine example watch, it is an hour well spent!

  2. Jakob says

    This is a wrong-headed conclusion. In all areas, and in test after test, people who aren’t good at something are also much less accurate in assessing their own performance.

    Look at studies done on SAT scores, for instance — same thing. Low scores think they did well, and the higher you go, the better they are at knowing their position.

    Has nothing to do with the US particularly or self-esteem.

  3. says

    The biggest benefit to failure is that you know one way that isn’t the right way to answer the problem. Cross if off your list and take a different approach. I agree that children need to be given a good environment to learn to fail and benefit from it though I think that needs to be more at home than at any educational institution.

  4. says

    No wonder students are coming into the colleges so underprepared. They already feel fine about themselves, so they have no incentive to try to improve.

  5. Mark Shead says

    @DeathToFailure – Well if Harvard and other top schools represent the top 1% of students, it is realistic that any of those students who grew up in an average school will have always been at the top of their class–often in every single area of study.

  6. Mark Shead says

    @Jakob – If you talk to teachers in the US I think you will find that there is a very big over emphasis on self esteem. In fact it is very difficult for a student to fail a grade because the current theory is that the damage to the student’s self esteem is more detrimental than just passing them on to the next grade.

    Also the study we were reading didn’t say that the people with higher scores were any more accurate in accessing their own performance. It wasn’t a matter of asking them to “guess” their own score. It was a matter of asking them how skilled they were in a particular subject.

    The students from other countries knew what it took to be really good at the subject and saw how far they could go. I think this is because the teachers focused on skills instead of trying to make them feel good. The US students evidently didn’t know how much better they could be and assumed they were at the top. I think this is because the teachers were focusing on how the kids would feel instead of on their ability to master skills.

    I understand your point about people who are skilled being better able to rank themselves in that skill, but that wasn’t directly what this was measuring.

  7. Mark Shead says

    @Julia – I was talking to a group of community college teachers a few months ago and asked how the students have changed over the years. They all said that the biggest difference they see with current students is that they are completely focused on passing the test and not at all focused on learning. They attributed this to the no child left behind test centric focus.


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