A Place at the Table for Failure

Originally Posted February 2015

Last week my corner of the twittersphere was buzzing with the word FAILURE.  Ashton Kutcher made a surprise appearance at TEDYouth and decided to talk about just that and since then I have seen a terrific number of illustrations of the utility and beauty of failure.

What an incredibly important message to give to learners, child and adult.  Failure is an opportunity to learn and grow.  Sometimes it also helps us choose direction, rarely will failure ruin all our plans for the future, usually it tells us we need to find new ways to approach our goals (and even gives us hints as to how).  In fact, not allowing children to fail can be quite impairing, yet our culture attaches a great deal of shame to failure.  What do we lose, though, if failure is not an option?  How does fear of failure influence how we treat one another and ourselves?


The above comic helped me to start making some connections that I would like to share from what I have learned in studying Educational Psychology.  In particular, Goal Orientation Theory and Self-Compassion came to mind.  Goal Orientation Theory (also known as Achievement Goal Theory) (Pintrich, 2000) posits that our reasons for working toward goals can vary greatly and that orientation has implications for how well we learn new things and how we deal with failure in the process of learning.  When we learn things because we enjoy the process of learning, we are more likely to remember what we learned and also more likely to see failure as a natural part of the learning process. According to this theoretical perspective, this is a mastery orientation .  The other orientation posited in earlier work on goals was called Performance Orientation, wherein the learner’s motivation behind work toward a goal was primarily that of success at that goal, whether it be making a good grade or obtaining recognition (or avoiding FAILURE).  A great deal of research has been done on these goal orientations, and over time with further research they have been modified (you can find updated information and research findings here).  

It seems clear to me that high pressure to succeed in the form of high-stakes assessments and competition for recognition such as we find in most, if not all, traditional school settings could only contribute to the latter.  What, then, would a learning environment look like that supports a MASTERY orientation?  What if failure and success weren’t so dichotomized?

The second concept that sprang to mind was that of self-compassion.  When I taught a course on applied learning and motivation theory, we would talk about inner voice and its influence on motivation.  My students often mentioned how cheesy the text sounded especially in regard to positive self-talk. At the beginning of the next class I would ask them to write down what they would say to a friend who was failing two classes and was afraid of losing his financial aid at the end of the semester.  Once they were done I’d ask them to turn over the card and on the other side write what they would say to themselves in the same situation.  It wasn’t uncommon to hear nervous giggling or even a gasp at the realization that their words to themselves were far harsher, and frequently unhelpful.

I was fortunate in my graduate school experience to learn a good bit about the psychological concepts of mindfulness and self-compassion from Kristin Neff, an expert on the study of the latter as a psychological construct.  Of course both mindfulness and compassion are appropriated from Buddhist philosophical concepts, but there is a lot of promising research on how they are currently being used in counseling settings.

It’s true that we rarely afford ourselves the same understanding, patience, and acceptance in our failures as we do those we care about; it takes practice and even hard work to learn to see failure as a necessary part of the human condition, but that by freeing ourselves from the judgement of failure, we can more clearly see the path forward and enjoy the journey!

My own fear of failure.

About a week ago Jerry Mintz, the director of the Alternative Education Resource Organization, asked me what my goals are in regards to our family’s adventure.  Up to that point I felt like I had a somewhat clear idea of the things I knew I wanted to learn and those that I could pick up along the way.  Even so, his question initially felt quite scrutinous given the early stage of our adventure planning. On reflection I realized that the reason the question made me feel scrutinized was that I am afraid of failing, afraid of letting the people down who devote their lives to the learning environments I am just beginning to explore. Just the tiniest shift in mindset, allowing myself to acknowledge my fears and approaching his question as a learning opportunity led me to experience a much deeper and more thought-out conceptualization of our adventures, which will, in all probability help me convey my goals to those I hope to work with.  So now I’m going to go write him back to thank him!  Yes, I may still fail at my ultimate goal of encouraging a large number of people to think more critically about how we educate students and teachers, but I am certain that what is gained by trying will be an experience of great value for me and for my family.

Thanks for reading!