Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Letting Students Fail

Photo by John Liu 
At the ISTE conference in June, Chris Tully presented on the motivated and engaged classroom. He said that as teachers we need to "let students learn by failing." The idea of allowing my students to fail made me very uncomfortable. I had always believed that the mission of education was to help students succeed and to me that meant preventing failure at all costs. As a teacher, it is hard for me to watch my students fail especially when my intervention could prevent that failure. Since that day I have been wrestling with how helpful is "too helpful." I began to wonder if my continual need to step in was helping my students or ultimately hurting them. As I wrestled with the idea of allowing students to fail, I reflected on my own experience as a learner. Many of the things that I struggled with the most were the ones that I worked the hardest at and learned the most from.

In his blog post on resisting being helpful, Dan Rockwell suggests that there are benefits to failure:
         1. Struggle strengthens.
         2. Failure humbles.
         3. Defeat opens hearts and minds.

What I had failed to realize is that failure can teach students just as much (if not more) as success. What brought me a moment of clarity is when Rockwell states: "The simple question is, 'Will pulling back [or stepping in] aid development?'" At the end of the day, what I want is to aid in my students' cognitive, academic, and social development. There will be times when stepping in will be the way to go and times when stepping back would be better. 

What are your thoughts on allowing students to fail?


  1. In my personal experience, the more I ask students to struggle, the more support I need to provide. For college, this means being available for questions throughout the day, more office hours, etc. If you ask for more, the frustration level really rises. If they know you are there for them, students are willing to take more risks.

    Tough with students of different levels though. Take my emerging tech class - some students said too easy, others were really challenged. What did you think?

  2. I definitely agree with you: the more challenging a project is, the higher the level of frustration. In the emerging tech class, I didn't think of it as easy or difficult. I knew that I would be doing new things that would stretch me but I did know that I had you for support if I needed it.