Benefits of Failure: Why Making Mistakes in School Is a Must (page 2)

Benefits of Failure: Why Making Mistakes in School Is a Must

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Updated on Sep 4, 2013


Mathematician ET Bell said, "The mistakes and unresolved difficulties of the past in mathematics have always been the opportunities of its future."  Many mathematical theories that were once dismissed have since become essential to complicated fields like artificial intelligence and particle physics.  Even Einstein made mistakes, but luckily for us, he never gave up.

Whenever a child raises his hand to answer a question in Jerry Brodkey’s math class, she’ll never hear him say, “That’s wrong.” Instead, he’ll say, “That’s interesting. How did you get your answer?” By supporting his students when they take a chance, Mr. Brodkey encourages them to keep trying. And by talking through mistakes out loud, Mr. Brodkey helps other students who may have made the same error.


JK Rowling is arguably the most successful author of our time. Ironically, the title of her 2008 Harvard commencement address was "The Fringe Benefits of Failure." “Failure, “ she said, “gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way…the knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive.”

English class should be a place where students learn to find their voice. Yes–proper grammar and spelling are critical for good communication. But no great author ever succeeded because of his talent with the Oxford formatting style. The best writers rise to the top because they’ve learned to tap into their imagination and express their feelings. Children should be reminded that it takes practice to find one’s style, and that they’ll write a few flops before they hit their stride.

Practical Arts (Woodshop, Home Economics, Computer Science)

Electives are being pushed out of students’ schedules as we expect them to take more academic classes to compete for college admissions. But electives are critical because they provide the best opportunity for students to try without penalty, to be able to make mistakes and learn from them.

Practical Arts offer the perfect chance for students to learn to recover from failure. Says shop teacher Mark Leeper, “Kids learn persistence in woodshop. If they cut a piece of wood that doesn’t fit their project, they can fix the problem by cutting a new piece. It’s one of the few places in school where students don’t get penalized if they get things wrong the first time. We teach kids to keep trying.”

Fine Arts (Music, Art, Dance, Photography)

The beauty of the fine arts is that there are no right answers. These subjects offer a chance for pure expression of one’s thoughts and emotions. It’s a relief to our test-driven students to be in a class where their creativity is rewarded instead of squelched. They enjoy the chance to express themselves just for the pleasure of it, not because they’re going to be tested on it.

Even if teachers deem a child’s artwork to be “unusual,” she can take solace in the fact that geniuses like Van Gogh weren’t appreciated at first. Art is subjective; there’s no definitive voice for what’s right or wrong. 

School needs to be a place that doesn’t just teach the right answers; it should also be a place that teaches kids how to bounce back from failure. Child psychologist David Elkind has long advocated letting our children learn without pressure. “While playing, children can try on pretend solutions and experience how those solutions work. If they make mistakes, those mistakes won’t hurt them as they would in real life.” Schools need to be forgiving; our kids have the rest of their lives to face real demands.

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