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Failure: Part of the Learning Process?

Failure: Part of the Learning Process?

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Updated on Oct 5, 2010

Your child comes home with a test marked up in red – an “F” at the top of the page. Traditionally, this letter is the worst mark you can receive on an assignment, test, or worse – an entire class. The grade may reflect a child’s lack of understanding, or a teacher’s failed attempt. Kids have distinct learning styles and teachers have different teaching methods, so it’s challenging to define what an F means. But however you define it, isn’t "failure" a part of the learning process – in and out of the classroom?

“An F does not always indicate a lack of understanding of the material,” says Nicole Catapano at the WSWHE Board of Cooperative Educational Services. “Sometimes a missed assignment or a lack of enthusiasm about a subject or teacher leads to a failing grade, not a lack of knowledge.” Or, perhaps your child, like many young students, simply made a poor choice: she procrastinated on studying for a test or starting an essay. As a parent, it may be wise in this situation to allow your child to fail in order to learn a lesson "the hard way."

"I often council parents that this is the best method, but they rarely accept it as good advice," says Wayne Wheatley, a science teacher at Detroit County Day School. Wheatley, also a Science Olympiad team coach, tells his students that it's helpful to learn from such mistakes, "but they don't always want to accept it because they are just looking at the grade and thinking about how it will affect their honor roll status or how angry their parents will be when they get home," he says.

When possible, Wheatley turns failed team projects into positive learning experiences. "Often, part of the challenge is to build a machine. Inevitably, the things [the students] build get broken, but I tell them that engineering is all about building something just so you can break, rebuild, and make it stronger," he says. As a result, the kids accept this, "not only because it is more fun, but there is less academic pressure to succeed."

Still, Wheatley acknowledges it's hard for parents to allow their children to fail. Here are bits of advice to consider if your child is on the verge of failing an assignment, or has already received that dreaded "F" on a project or exam:

  • Ask for an explanation. If your child doesn’t understand those comments in red, she should ask her teacher to clarify. If she receives no further guidance, it may be detrimental to her learning. “As children, depending on our peers, self-esteem, support system, and the feedback we receive from adults, we may see failure as very negative,” says Tracy Flechsig Smith, a specialist in organizational leadership working on a doctorate in education in Atlanta, Ga. “Children need the direction to know how to look at the mistake or lack of success and see how to make it better.”
  • Play up the positive. “The best thing a parent can do is listen, be involved, and accentuate the positive even when the kid gets an F,” says Smith. Encourage your child to see new information as wisdom gained. "I approach student failures by not phrasing it as 'Johnny failed the test' but rather, 'Johnny did not seem prepared for this test,'" adds Wheatley. "It is a lot easier for all parties to accept that it was a result of some inaction, rather than a personal attack of character," he says.
  • Reward risk taking. Your child may get an F on an assignment because she tried something that didn’t work. Fearing failure, she may conform to the rules in the future. “It’s ironic how the school systems train us to avoid making any mistakes, yet it is those risks and mistakes that later yield the greatest rewards – or lessons – later in life,” says Bruce Serven, an entrepreneur with a higher education background in Novi, Mich. If your child chose to examine a difficult topic for her research paper or began her essay with a daring introduction – and later failed – acknowledge this effort to try something new.
  • Don’t brush off a question that seems irrelevant. Answer the questions that your child asks, even if they sound trivial. “We don't think like they do, so we have to be accepting and willing to adapt to their learning style,” says Smith. If your child is no longer inquisitive, she may feel discouraged and “stupid.” Always encourage curiosity, whether it’s about schoolwork or not.
  • Assess objectives. Ask the teacher for a rubric showing how an assignment or exam was scored, and then ask if your child understood what was being asked of her. If she continues to fail this type of task or test through the semester, chances are she doesn’t get the point. “There are some students who just don’t do well on tests, but know the subject better than anyone. Every student is different,” says Smith. Wheatley adds that sometimes a student simply studies the wrong material, or may not know how to study (or approach a particular type of test format).
  • Pay attention to what's going on outside the classroom. External factors may cause poor performance: test anxiety, a lack of sleep, sickness, stress, a change in routine, or a death in the family. Don't assume your child is immune to any of these factors.
  • Budget your time. Assist your child in creating a calendar that not only marks test or assignment due dates, but keeps track of study time before these deadlines. Set reasonable preparation periods: if a project is due May 1, designate study and prep hours each week, starting one month before, for example. Poor preparation and procrastination are often a cause of failing.
  • Promote new ways of learning. Your child needs direction that fits her learning style. If she responds more to visuals, incorporate TV documentaries, interactive DVDs, and visits to hands-on museums into her schedule. If she feeds off of peer comments, encourage small-group work.

Above all, help your child find her passion. Direct kids to what they are excited about – not to what you expect out of them, says Smith. Guide her to activities and topics that build her confidence and inspire her to learn.

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