Teaching Students About Failure And Success

While many teachers are understandably focused on teaching their respective subjects to the best of their abilities, many do so with an eye on the overall success that a student may achieve in their academic endeavors and their lives. Helping students develop the right habits and a proper mindset to achieve success is a strenuous and difficult undertaking, but teachers are often undaunted in this challenge.

But what about teaching students to deal with failure?

Many students are devastated by failure. Whether it's failing on a test, failing a course, failure to reach some academic goal, or failure to land a sought after internship or job, their tendency is to personalize and internalize the failure.

Unfortunately, many students have a mindset that is not conducive to circumventing failure because of, what I call, the "ego boost syndrome" that's associated with getting good grades.

These are the students who are more focused on getting an "A" than on learning. To receive a "good" grade results in a sharp rise or reinforcement of self-esteem. What is actually learned is secondary.

There is a correlation between getting good grades and not making mistakes. The fewer mistakes one makes on a test, the better the grade. The fewer the mistakes that one makes in life or in one's career, the greater the success, right?

Because we live in a society that encourages perfection and discourages imperfection, many students have a learned fear of making mistakes and will go to great lengths to avoid them. We teachers see this when we bring up questions for discussion. Often it's the not the smartest student who jumps at the chance to provide the right answer; it's the student who is least afraid of giving the wrong answer who responds.

Right or wrong, we appreciate the effort of the student who risks public failure to make a contribution. That's the same unbridled effort that allows for people to learn from their mistakes. It's responsible for breakthroughs and drives innovation. It's also an attitude that's rarely displayed in talented people who are protective of their egos. Motivational psychologist, Carol Dweck, has this to say about making mistakes:

"People who believe in the power of talent tend not to fulfill their potential because they're so concerned with looking smart and not making mistakes. But people who believe that talent can be developed are the ones who really push, stretch, confront their own mistakes and learn from them."

In her book, Mindset, she writes that people with a growth mind-set tend to demonstrate the kind of perseverance and resilience required to convert life's setbacks into future successes. That ability to learn from experience was cited as the No. 1 ingredient for creative achievement in a poll of 143 creativity researchers cited in Handbook of Creativity in 1999.

Because the objective of education is learning - not grades - the effectiveness of any teacher lies within the willingness of the student to learn what is being taught. One of the most valuable lessons that teachers provide students is how to analyze mistakes and learn from failure.

I teach my students that the only failure there is, is failure to meet the requirements of success. Each failure - when we acknowledge them as a shortcoming or setback - provides invaluable lessons that clue us in to where we need to place more attention or greater effort.

When my students talk to me about career choices that they are contemplating and the skills and abilities they need to succeed, I tell them that accountability is the most important ability you can use to seduce an employer.

Accountability is an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one's actions.

Unlike success, no one intentionally seeks failure, but to separate one's self from one's failure, and embrace the knowledge provided by it has to be an intentional act. If failure results from mistakes being made, they clearly need to be analyzed and corrected to prevent being repeated. The action of exploring the causes of failure and addressing them - whether yours or an organization to which you belong - is what creates success.

When students are taught these principles, they will be able to use failure as a building block to success.

Author: Gian Fiero is an educator, speaker and consultant.

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