Fail Better

Last week, my students were preparing for their first in-class essay, and they were freaking out.

We’re writing commentaries.  In a commentary, you read a short text you haven’t seen before and then comment on the themes or effects that the author has produced, and explain how he/she has produced them.  Commentaries are hard, but we’ve been working on them for weeks now, and they’re mostly getting the hang of it.  Now that they know they’ll be graded, though, they’re panicking.

In one class, a handful sat paralyzed during our final exercise, unable to write anything at all on their paper.  I visited each of them periodically, asking them probing questions and nudging them to put something, anything, down.  They scratched a few notes, then stared at the page, their faces immobilized.

“Is this ok?” Octavia asked me repeatedly.  “Does my thesis statement make sense?  If I want to talk about the point of view, can I do that?  What should I say?”

“Just write it down,” I said.  “We’ll discuss in a few minutes.  Just write it down.”

At the end of the practice class, I asked all the students to share what they had come up with, and some seemed to have a handle on things.  Others who’d been floundering looked more and more relieved as I wrote thesis after thesis on the board and said, “Yes, this is what you’re after!  Please explain!  You see, it’s not easy, but with a bit of thought, you can get started.”

I went directly to my other section of the same course, and there, things went south much more quickly and noisily.

I asked them to do the same individual exercise, to be discussed together at the end of class.  It was clear that a number of them had no idea where to begin.  For a few, this wasn’t surprising: they’d missed classes and previous practice essays and were only now realizing that it was catching up with them.  Nevertheless, the instructions were clear, they had a rubric with all of the criteria in front of them, and EVERY SINGLE CLASS SO FAR THIS SEMESTER has been preparation for this essay.

Some students were working diligently away, but most, after a cursory reading of the assigned text and a few moments of simmering silence, began talking to their neighbours.  They were on task – they were asking for help, comparing notes, all things that would normally be par for the class.  But the noise was growing louder, and the purpose of this exercise was to do the work alone.

I reminded them of this.  “Next class, you have to write this essay by yourself.  Your neighbour can’t help you.  Why aren’t you taking advantage of the practice time right now?”

The grumbles began.  “Miss, can we have, like, a five minute discussion after we get the text next class, so we can share our thoughts?”


“But miss, it’s hard!”

“Of course it’s hard!” I cried.  “If it were easy, there’d be no reason to study it in school!”

But I paused.  Something was happening here that I wasn’t acknowledging.  What was it?  I let them buzz a little longer, and then I marched to the front of the room.

“Listen to me,” I said.  They stopped talking.

“I am VERY CONCERNED,” I said.  “But it’s not because I don’t think you can do this.  I’m concerned because YOU don’t think you can do it.  You’re panicking and throwing your hands in the air and not even trying.”

“We’re like the girl in the passage!” Jamila piped up.  “She can’t do what she wants, so she just gives up doing anything!”

“You see?” I said.  “Jamila and I have been talking for twenty minutes and she’s been saying she doesn’t understand.  But see?  She understands SOMETHING.”

“But it’s not enough, miss,” Jamila said.  “What else am I supposed to say?”

“Listen to me,” I said.  “I guarantee you, if you come in next class believing you can’t do it, you won’t be able to do it.”

“Guaranteed!”  Zack nodded and pointed through the air at me in a “sing it, sister” gesture.

“But you can do SOMETHING, if you stop worrying about doing it wrong.  If you sit there for two hours and write a bunch of notes and come up with a thesis statement or a literary device or anything, I’ll give you any points I can give you.  Then, when you take it home later to revise, you’ll have something to start the next draft with.  You might fail this essay.  But if you fail the essay, THE WORLD WILL NOT END.”

Zack raised his hands to the sky.  “Thank you miss!” he yelled.  “I need to hear that.  I do.”

“Just do it.  Even if you think your ideas are ridiculous, just write them down.  If the draft you do in class doesn’t make any sense, we’ll work on it, and you’ll do it again at home, and maybe next time it will be better.  Honestly, guys, if you get out of college not knowing how to write a perfect literary commentary, it’s not a big deal.  But if you get out of college knowing that now you can sit with a random text for a couple of hours and come up with some things to say about it, that will be an accomplishment.”

I let them go.  I came home exhausted.  My New York Sunday Times was still sitting on the table, untouched.  I pulled out the Magazine, to discover, on the cover, Paul Tough’s essay “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?” In it, he interviews teachers, principals and other educators who believe that “character” – variously defined – is a more important ingredient in long-term life success than academic smarts are.

Tough writes much of his article about the American KIPP schools, remarkably successful charter schools for students in difficulty.  KIPP graduates an impressive number of its at-risk students, but followup studies have shown that these students don’t always thrive once they get to college, and a large number don’t complete their degrees.  According to one of his subjects,

 the students who persisted in college were not necessarily the ones who had excelled academically [at the KIPP schools]; they were the ones with exceptional character strengths, like optimism and persistence and social intelligence. They were the ones who were able to recover from a bad grade and resolve to do better next time; to bounce back from a fight with their parents; to resist the urge to go out to the movies and stay home and study instead…

Another researcher tells him,

…learning is hard. True, learning is fun, exhilarating and gratifying — but it is also often daunting, exhausting and sometimes discouraging. . . . To help chronically low-performing but intelligent students, educators and parents must first recognize that character is at least as important as intellect.

Tough, reflecting on these observations, comments that

the struggle to pull yourself through a crisis, to come to terms on a deep level with your own shortcomings and to labor to overcome them — is exactly what is missing for so many students…

According to Tough and some of his subjects, the key ingredient is grit, the ability to persist in the face of obstacles and even failure.

GRIT! I thought.  This is what I’ve been saying all along!  If I can face down my limitations, if I can labour to be, not perfect, but better – I will be … happy?  Is grit something we can learn?  If so, how can we teach it?

Two days later, my students were still labouring to be perfect.  In my first class, I had to visit Octavia several times.  “STOP SECOND-GUESSING YOURSELF,” I told her.

“I know, miss,” she said.  “I always do that, always.  I don’t know how to stop.”

I don’t know how to help her stop, either.  But after I whispered “WRITE IT DOWN” one more time, and walked away, she began writing things down.  She filled a couple of pages.  I haven’t read them yet, but those pages, regardless of what’s on them, are an achievement.

Teaching them how to write a commentary is all very well, but what is it for?  Maybe the main thing is for is to help them practice grit: Yes, it’s hard.  Just keep going.  If you fail, fail as well as you can, and then try again.

We need to spend less time talking about literary techniques and more time talking about grit.

Image by shho


246 responses

  1. Thanks for this…..:-)

    This is honest, real-life, and RIGHT ON THE MONEY! So refreshing to see a teacher talk openly about what REALLY happens in her classroom!

    I’ve shared this post with my collaborators too! 😛

    Gen X

  2. That’s pretty excellent advice for life in general. I don’t know what it is, but I see what you describe in a lot of students who are simply afraid to take risks and fail. I was something of one of those students when I started university and I was a bit scared of doing anything without being walked through it step by step for fear of failure, which is not good since university is about taking initiative and responsibility for yourself. I think that’s changed somewhat.

    Either way, failure is an essential part of learning, and that can’t be emphasized enough. And it seems you’ve done a good job communicating that in the classroom.

    • Ravi: I think it’s common for students to enter college/university with this fear of getting things wrong; it’s related to a normal stage in their cognitive development. Many of them are still at Baxter Magolda’s “absolute knowing” stage, where they believe that there is a right and a wrong answer, and if the teacher would just tell them the right one, they could avoid looking like fools. If only we could be at that normal learning stage but also be brave, we’d learn so much!

    • I’ve noticed that if I don’t fail at something, I don’t try harder next time. I don’t try as hard the second time–and then that’s when I fail or do a whole lot worse.

      Even if you think you will fail, at least start. You have failed if you didn’t even start at all. And if you do fail, keep trying. And if you do not fail, still keep trying harder.

  3. As your post appeared in my in-box, I was posting about this very same article. I am fascinated, always, by the similarities between your college students and my middle school students, in spite of the age difference. That fear of getting it wrong, of failing, is so stifling. Yet, failing and moving beyond it is such an important lesson for all of them. I think you’re right — this should probably be our focus — and literature is a way to get there.

    • I guess this article touched a nerve for a lot of us…not only did I post about it today too, but I am right now preparing a PP presentation connecting the ideas in Tough’s article to the next assignment my students have to do. Great minds, etc.! I like your take on it, too, and I agree – literature is a great medium for thinking about so many components of character.

  4. Interesting article. I do think it is kind of sad that we have to TELL the students that it’s all right to fail and that the New York Times magazine felt the need to put on the cover of its magazine that maybe the path to success is through failure. That bit of knowledge, to me, should be common place knowledge.
    But, hey, it’s out there, people will read it and that’s a good thing.

    • Amy:
      It would be great if it were common knowledge. There are so many pressures around students telling them that it is NOT ok to fail. An F, for most of them, feels like a punishment (and could lead to actual punishment at home.) If society as a whole can focus on failure as a part of learning, I think we’ll all be better off!

      • Siobhan,
        I was truly refreshing and informative to read this post. As I approach my 30’s, I find myself less and less connected to the experience of the younger generations coming behind me. I work with young people a lot, but have noticed a lot of the same things that you described in terms of trying before giving up. The element of the culture in the US can be pretty daunting to anyone regarding people’s perceptions about failure. I work within a community that has shifted the language from talking about “failure” to rather calling it “learning”. In this space, individuals are encouraged to try things out in their communities without worrying about what your students (and indeed, many of us) seem to be hampered by.

        Thank you so much for documenting your experiences.

      • Great story. I am sharing it on Facebook.

        I wd like to share a great piece of conversation that I heard when I was 20 (am now 55) which was a lesson for life. At a social gathering a friend (Srivatsa iyengar) reintroduced himself to a gentleman and by way of recall said “We had invited to you to speak to our debating club (Young Orators’ Club, Secunderabad) some years back”. The professor semi-casually joked “And then you realized your mistake and never called me again”. My friend responded genially (and this remains etched in my mind forever thereafter “Sir, we don’t make mistakes. We learn.”

        I think it sums up the attitude required…

  5. Siobhan, thank you for posting this! I’ve been dealing with this same difficulty with my students, too, and even in my own life as I look at the difficulties that come with trying to make knowledge accessible and valuable to my students’ perceptions. In fact, I was just thinking about this topic last night as I was getting ready for bed and reading a few verses in Hebrews about people who were needing endurance and feeling ready to just give up because it was seeming too hard to go on believing what God had told them (Heb 10:35-36 “Cast not away therefore your confidence, which hath great recompence of reward. For ye have need of patience, that, after ye have done the will of God, ye might receive the promise.”). So, thanks for sharing this, for putting these thoughts on the character quality of determination so clearly. I’m planning to print it out and share it with my students, too. It’s something that takes a long time to teach them–probably a lifetime–and it’s important for us to keep teaching it. It’s important for us to practice it in our own lives, too =)

  6. One of the big problems with education systems around the world is that they all feel the need to measure success and most have gone for fairly crude measures. How wonderful that we are at last approaching an understanding of what we really want for our children and hopefully a more sophisticated means of judging the success of what we do. As teachers we all cherish the moments when we really reach a pupil, sometimes that might be something subject based but all too often the real needs of the child are more personal and the magic point of contact is more emotional. Really enjoyed the article, thanks for leading me to it.

    • Gerain: We do so much more than teach our subject matter, whether we are aware of it or not. If we are conscientious, we try to teach everything else as mindfully as we do our course content! Thanks for your comment.

  7. Many of my 9th grade gifted students “suffer” from perfectionism. They have never gotten less than an “A” on anything before in their lives and they freak the heck out the first time they don’t get an “A” grade on something in my class. As much and I try to tell them that everything is a process, they and their parents can only see grades and a GPA. It is a daily struggle, to get them to understand that failing an assignment is not the end of the world. Thanks for this! It is good to know that it is something teachers struggle with across the board, no matter the age of their students.

    • TG: It never goes away. In Quebec we have something called the “R-score,” a complicated equation that tells universities where a student stands in relation to others in his class, his program, others in the same program across the province etc. So students are not only obsessed with grades, they’re obsessed with class averages. Who can blame them? It’s a real concern, but in the end, it can’t be MY primary concern, and maybe some of them can learn that in the long run, it’s not what matters most.

  8. Oh god reading this almost makes me want to cry. Can I admit this out loud? (Well, as loud as commenting on a blog gets, anyway.) I’ve been out of college for 20+ years (oh dear) and yet I still struggle with this exact thing whenever I write something that others will read (book reviews, in my case, mostly). I attribute it to perfectionism, which paralyzes before you even get started.

    But you can do SOMETHING, if you stop worrying about doing it wrong. Indeed. Like your student, I don’t know how to stop second-guessing myself, no matter how painful and unproductive it is. Still, I feel like your thoughts on this are just what I needed to hear. Thank you. (And as you said, if I fail, THE WORLD WILL NOT END. Or as Elizabeth Smart used to say Bash on regardless.)

    • Bash on regardless, indeed. Imagine how different life would be if we didn’t care if we made fools of ourselves?

      I was subbing for a friend the other day, and I got to show her class the last half hour of Harold and Maude. Do you remember the scene where he tells Maude that he feels like doing somersaults on the grass, but it’s too embarrassing? And she says, “Harold, everyone has the right to make an ass out of themselves. You just can’t let the world judge you too much.” Maude knows.

  9. So much wisdom and truth in this essay. Grit is what makes someone successful. You can have all the smarts in the world, but without discipline, it won’t do you a whole lot of good. Students need to take risks and try new things. Being “uncomfortable” is an integral part of the learning process. I get frustrated with our college scholarship model, which automatically grants tuition credits to students with certain GPAs. A GPA does not say if the student truly learned, nor does it show students who tried hard yet failed. Thanks for the thought provoking post!

    • Damommachef: I get frustrated with grades in general, or, rather, the assumption made by students, teachers, parents, universities, scholarship committees etc. that grades measure things like learning. They really don’t – they are arbitrary and flawed in so many ways. If we could see grades that way, they could still be useful indicators of a lot of things, but because they are the be-all and end-all in most people’s minds, they are counterproductive. I have had so many conversations with students when I’ve said things along the lines of, “The grade is there to help you learn, not reward or punish you!” But the fact is, the grade has a huge and concrete impact on so many things in the student’s life, and there’s no way around that.

  10. I loved that Times article, too, though I wonder if the difficulties of your students in just starting to write also spring from a couple other sources: one, that the way things are taught in primary schools (at least in the US) and middle schools, it’s practically a sin to be wrong. There’s no exploration, no constructive or creative problem-solving. No sense of there being multiple potential ways to do things, all of which have a certain profile of advantages and drawbacks. No trying different things out to see if they work. There’s just right, and wrong, and if you’re wrong too much, you fail, so kids are justifiably scared of getting things “wrong.”

    I wish there were a lot more respect in the early years of schooling for the value of having been curious and daring, even if you didn’t accomplish what you set out to. One of the best professors I had in college was a guy who really loved it when you totally failed to prove what you set out to prove in a paper, but found out something else in the process.

    And secondly, I sense it has a lot to do with this generation of kids just not being comfortable with *writing* as a natural thing to do if no one’s making them. When I was a kid, kids still wrote letters for fun–we had pen-pals–we wrote diaries and of course passed notes to each other in class. And I don’t know how much of that even goes on anymore–I’m not usually a downer on electronic media, but in this case, I think it has a lot to do with writing not being seen as a natural way to communicate thoughts.

    Great post!

    • Chavisory:

      I agree that our education system is a big part of the problem – an “F” is a punishment and a stigma, and little reward is given for process. There are attempts in Quebec to change this, but they are not going so well – teachers often don’t have the time and resources to implement a process-focused curriculum and so rely on the teaching and evaluation methods they know, which position failure as something to be avoided.

      And yes, I think reading and writing are becoming more and more marginalized as leisure activities for kids, although I sometimes wonder if I idealize the good old days – my friends and I loved to read and write, but there were plenty of kids around us who didn’t!

  11. Agreed totally — grit is essential. But another aspect of student learning that I’m finding all but absent: curiosity.

    If we could inspire the concepts of hard work, tenacity, work ethic and a genuine curiosity about subjects … I think you could change the fundamentals of education.

    Instead, I think too often we simply teach concepts.

    Good for you for changing the paradigm! 🙂

    • I agree, Mikalee – curiosity is such an asset. My students and I had a discussion about these qualities yesterday, and curiosity is one of the ones they had the hardest time getting their heads around.

    • Mikalee, you have a point! Thank you for that bright idea, but we all know that such curiosity does not always end up good right? I am looking forward for someone who knows how curiosity can be innovated to the way learning is perceived in this generation. Because so many youth, like me, are blinded by the habits of typical people.

  12. I think it is the important thing to begin allowing students to realize that failure happens and allowing them to learn from it. The times I truly learned the most was from failure, where I was forced to learn how to improve the next time, that I actually felt like I achieved something.

      • The first improv comedy class I ever took, we started out with a big overwrought ‘circus bow’, which was to be our acknowledgement & acceptance of failure. It breaks the ice and gives everyone a common way to acknowledge failure and move on from it. Failure is encouraged insofar that if you do not fail, you’re not taking enough risks; no amount of cleverness or acting technique will save a performer who plays it safe. The result is boring theater so it’s vitally important to eliminate the mental & social consequences of failure early on.

        The other important takeaway from the class was the notion that you’re not an expert and you’re not expected to be perfect – if you were, you’d be the one teaching the class. Everyone starts from the same place – as a beginner – so failure is inevitable, making it an absolute necessity in the learning process.

        As you’ve shown, fear of failure is distracting, limiting, in some cases debilitating. Embracing failure in a positive, supportive setting is a great way to rob fear of the power it has over people. The fear of failure never goes away, but it can be much diminished, making it easier to perservere and take bigger risks.

        • I think those are some of the more important points. We have to allow ourselves to be willing to fail in order to improve (hence where personal development comes into play as we learn).

        • I think we need a balance. While failure should be acceptable, it should be considered as a minor stop in the journey towards success. Else failure too can lead to complacency and may not trigger learning and redoubling of effort.

  13. Thanks for sharing this – the hardest thing I have ever had to do was believe in myself and my own ability. You can study all you want, you can be in all the classes, you can say all the right things and make all the right moves, but if you are not going to believe it – no one is going to believe it. It all comes down to not just self-esteem, but a clear understanding of your own ability and then, yes- the last step before the plunge is grit – great post – congrats on making f.p. 🙂

    • Thanks Kianys! I agree with your distinction between “self-esteem” and “understanding of your own ability.” I think we fetishize self-esteem in an unhealthy way. I remember reading and article a few years ago that cited studies of violent criminals that discovered that they did not, as had been assumed, suffer from low self-esteem – their self esteem was VERY HIGH, and was at the root of a lot of their problems!

  14. It’s so refreshing to hear someone say this! All the intellect in the world can only take you so far, but self-worth and character will take you anywhere. I also work with college students and I am always reminding them that what they learn inside the classroom is as invaluable as what you learn outside.

    • SGMW: “All the intellect in the world can only take you so far, but self-worth and character will take you anywhere.” I often find myself thinking about students I’ve had who weren’t outstandingly bright, but who made every room happier just by being in it. I wish I were more like them. I also know students who will go farther in life than their peers because they are socially intelligent, hardworking and persistent. I wonder if we can just DECIDE to be this way, or if it’s something innate?

  15. TRUE THAT. Aside from publishing, my main source of income is being an ESL teacher in South Korea, and grit is exactly what the kids need to do better. Intelligence, they have. They’ve got it in spades. Those kids will be in third grade, working on their geometry homework in their spare time. But perseverence? The desire to work through the homework or to talk during class so that they can practice their skills? That’s missing and I see where it’s missing every time they take a test or open their mouths to answer a question I put to them.

    I can even see a difference between the upper and lower level students. The lower level students get it – they’ve got will, determination and a genuine desire to learn. But that’s missing in the upper level students and I can’t help but wonder what is to blame: adolescence or the way the upper level classes are structured, grinding that will out of them.

    In either case, thanks so much for sharing. It’s always nice to see another teacher’s point of view on things.

    • Michael: your observation about upper vs. lower level students is very interesting. It reminds me of Sir Ken Robinson’s assertion that at 5 years old, we are all geniuses, but once we hit our teens, almost none of us are. Is it development of the brain that causes this, or experience? Fascinating.

      • “Oh what happened to your imagination
        Let’s dance this night away
        Everyone of us is born a genius
        Until we got too cool to play”
        John Reuben Lyrics

  16. Agreed with every single idea, I`m going to share them with my friends.

    I think that a text is like a jewel: at first it might be rough, but if you have patience to work on it, you might polish it until it shines. That`s why it is important to not hold yourself back when brainstorming.

  17. Thank you so much for writing that down. I really wished, that I would have had a teacher in school, which would have told me that. So thank you! I know now from experience, that you are right but I could have used a teacher during my time in college to tell me such things!

  18. I like it. I failed at many things. I even quit a few times. But failing and coming back to do better next time always felt better and got better results than quiting.

  19. YES! Yes, yes, yes! This is so incredibly true, and so refreshing to read. Truly, character (or grit, as you put it) is such a driving force behind everything we do. Without it, knowledge loses its power, even its purpose, because it’s not about what we learn in life but how we use it.

    Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  20. True grit or character means more to God than our comfort. As humans we don’t like to hurt, or push, or suffer, but if we can push through it all and keep “trying,” the results are always character defining and they inform the future. That’s the whole point of the story of Job. Excellent post! I sent your link to my daughter and asked her to keep a copy of this to reread over and over as she rears my grandson. All the best!

    • Etomczyk: “As humans we don’t like to hurt, or push, or suffer, but if we can push through it all and keep “trying,” the results are always character defining and they inform the future.” I sometimes ask my students: “Have you learned more from your successes or your failures?” The answer is obvious to them right away. If only we could keep validating failure in our schools and teaching people how to use it, students could then take that skill out of the classroom and into their lives.

  21. This is a fantastic post! Kids can be hard on themselves and need to take into consideration not just the letter grade, but what they gleaned from the assignment or experience. If writing the assignment was easy as pie and breezed through, what was the real lesson learned? That you already get this material and need to be challenged more. Bravo to you for being a great teacher. The kids are blessed to have yo as a role model. Keep it up!

    • OPM: Thank you! Convincing them that grades are not the be-all and end-all is still a struggle. We talked about these character qualities in class yesterday, and I asked how they might help them with doing their next assignment, and all the answers came back to “…and then I’ll end up with a better grade!” Sigh. Never mind; baby steps.

  22. Fantastic post! I agree 100% with Tough’s take that ‘the secret to success Is failure’.I used to tell my students (when I was still teaching at community college) that you learn the most (both in life and in the classroom) not by ‘getting it right’ all the time, but by trying and ‘failing’ (and trying again). Why? Because ‘failure’ is nothing more than an opportunity to do something differently the next time, and to learn a little bit more about yourself (and, perhaps, the problem presented) through the process. My mantra was always ‘students who work hard and do their best (as oppposed to doing nothing, or the bare minimum) can never fail’. I think it’s also important to acknowledge that very few employers base hiring decisions on grades – instead they look for individuals who can think on their feet, develop creative ideas, and apply them in new (and possibly challenging) ways. In other words, they want people with what I like to call ‘stick-to-it-iveness’ (or what you refer to above as ‘grit’). Knowing the ‘right answer’ is not nearly as important as believing that your answer is the right one.

    • Margo: I think reminding students that grades are in many ways arbitrary, and that most employers don’t look at transcripts, is a good way to put things into perspective for them. It’s hard, but essential, to convince them that grades are not the be-all and end-all!

  23. I definitely agree. I’m about to graduate and honestly, I am sad that I only almost reached the required average for a Cum Laude honor. But then again, I also believe that one’s worth cannot be measured by grades alone. I have all the chance to be better and be more successful than those graduating with honors all because of my determination and of course, my character as a whole 🙂

    • Cathy: exactly! Academic brilliance and superb grades don’t guarantee happiness or success, but the ability to “work hard and be nice,” as the KIPP motto goes, can make a life worthwhile. I’ve often been disappoitned by my academic results, but in the end, I can’t imagine how my life could be better!

  24. Great post! During my teaching career, my students were mostly the fear-of-failure slows me down type. My students found a safe place in my classroom and they were easy for other teachers to identify because, as one colleague put it, “they’re practicing what you teach them all over town!”

    It was only in the last year that I was given the “bonehead” course in the departement and I met the fear-of-failure paralyzes me types. We took it slow, and I had to promise them that I would not let them fail. I then redefined success as being able to order a meal in a Mexican restaurant without redress to English (I was teaching them Spanish). Sure enough, each of them was able to do that by the end of first quarter. Once that happened, most of them were willing and able to take little risks in the classroom. Sadly, some of them never were. Those are the ones I look back and wonder about . . . where are they now? I wish I’d been able to get them to the little risk in the classroom stage. If they’d taken those little risks, I’d have more hope for where they are now.
    Still, there are now teachers like you, and some of the others who commented, who are working to instill this knowledge. If my grandkids’ teachers are reading this blog, and this particular comment, PLEASE, work double hard to get this through to them! I work on it at home, too.

    • Tona: It’s true, we can’t get through to everyone. They had many, many experiences before they met us, and un-teaching some of what they learned just isn’t possible. We do our best! Maybe we’ll plant a seed, and later, someone will help them thaw out a bit.

  25. Yes true grit is something many people, especially students lack. failure to many isn’t an option and the social and self-expectations are high, especially since every college class is an investment that may never pay back in the end. a college degree doesn’t guarantee a job, though it is higher than a high school degree, but sometimes i wonder about the hoops and loops colleges and professors make us go through and there have been a large amount of professors i’ve had that are plain just ridiculous (one wouldn’t quit talking about nature and squirrels when we were in a psychology class and another one hardly speaks English) but too late, i’ve already paid for the class and the textbooks and they aren’t returnable at full price if the shrink wrap is pulled away. the thing is that people don’t want just a degree, they want good grades because more than likely, that heightens the chance of whatever goals they’re trying to accomplish (and death or the end of the world is better than letting go of a dream or goal to certain people). if they do fail that test or written paper, it might just be the end of the world because they, their parents or guardians bled to get money for that class and it just went down the drain and failing the class might mean retaking it, which mores more money, which means another year wasted at a college or university that really doesn’t care one way or another if you fail. it might mean suicide for some (i’ve known a few students to have committed suicide over failed exams or classes due to high expectations). all in all, i don’t think you should say that a failed exam or paper isn’t the end of the world for that or those students because frankly, it’s not your money being wasted on a system that’s been designed to fail students (who’ll probably never use whatever they learn in college again). i’m not saying that students are angels who are the victims of this malicious system, it’s life after all, i’m just saying that your words were chosen carelessly since i know friends and people who have killed themselves over failing academically. did they lack grit? i suppose.

    • ImmatureGirl: I can certainly see your point about how grades affect a lot of things, and we can’t just dismiss them. And, as you say, this is a problem is that the education system and our society as a whole have created: they stigmatize failure and so students feel enormous pressure not to fail. Tough’s article asks the question: can we change those expectations? Can we create an education system and society that treasure failure and help us use it productively? He seems to say yes, and I agree, but it won’t happen overnight.

  26. Haven’t you been Fresh Pressed before? I think I’m finding a trend among whomever is behind picking what gets posted on Fresh Pressed. If you’ve been “pressed” before, you’re likely to get “pressed” again.

    Nothing against you Siobhan, just an observation of WordPress and Fresh Pressed.

    As to your premise, of course. The sad reality is that much of our society and culture doesn’t encourage struggle. We want life handed to us on a silver platter and when things get difficult, we retreat. We’d rather have our hand out then figure out how to climb. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t or cannot help each other, but when you have zero drive, you’ll never leave your house, and you’ll only have yourself to blame.

    I saw some of this lack of will while I student-taught. Most of the students who weren’t strong academically continued to do poorly. My best friend saw this too after five years of teaching. You could literally hand the student the test answers verbatim the prior day and many would still flunk the test the following day. What made it worse in my situation was that my “mentor” teacher didn’t care for the regular kids. He pushed his AP students, but not the rest of them. He created his own self-fulfilling prophecy by selling those kids short. Worse, I could clearly see that many of those kids were not dumb, they just needed to believe in themselves. Alas, I only had 4.5 months to work with them and I was “under the thumb” of my mentor teacher.

    I literally had students who wouldn’t even attempt to answer any questions on a test. They’d rather take a zero than fail trying.

    • WadingAcross: I have indeed, and it is doubly an honour to be FP’d again.

      “They’d rather take a zero than fail trying” – I see this all the time. “If I’m going to fail, what’s the point?” The problem is, we’re not teaching them the point. We teach them that an “F” is punishment. An “F” feels bad, so why go through all the effort just to feel bad?

      If we could change our approach, if we could show them that there is value in failure, that we respect them for trying, a lot would change. It’s not just up to them. They learn to avoid failure because we teach them that failure is a sin.

  27. Congrats on Fresh-Pressed. Risk aversion is a malady that has penetrated our society from elementary (and likely pre-elementary) education to the top of corporate, political, and even military leadership. Some might argue that the cause is excessive coddling, one teaching strategy or another, over-emphasis on lean processes and “six-sigma” philosophy, or other reasons. Regardless of the cause(s), the fix is what you’re implementing: create a safe environment in which students are encouraged to lean forward and where failure, error analysis, and process improvement can occur.

    “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena…who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds…who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” – Theodore Roosevelt


    • FTR: It’s a tricky balance, maintaining high standards but helping students understand that it’s ok not to reach those standards the first time. If only we could change the whole world into a place where effort and failure and re-trying are valued, our jobs would be so much easier…

  28. I often wonder if it is a generational thing? How can you be curious if you don’t have to dig for anything? And how would you know how if you were constantly having data thrown at you from all the high-tech 24/7 stuff kids today are hooked-up to. Boy, do I sound old.

    • Newsy: I know, I listen to myself talk and it worries me. “Kids these days,” etc. But I don’t think it’s a generational thing. I remember being terrified at the prospect of getting an “F”. I saw people all around me give up on things like school because they kept failing and couldn’t find the motivation to keep trying. I think fear of failure is natural to the human species, and qualities like curiousity can be quickly dampened if we’re told that grades are all that matters.

  29. The only failure is giving up on something you want. That is IT. As long as you are still moving forward, you aren’t failing.

    • FireandAir: you know, I’m not sure I feel giving up on something you want is a failure, either. If I want to be an Olympic athlete, there may come a time when I know I will never achieve that, and that I’ll be happier channeling that energy into something else. I may still want it, but that doesn’t mean I’ve failed if I acknowledge I’m not going to get it.

      • Why did you give up, though? Did you give up because you figured you’d never be any good so why even bother, or because you felt like there was something else you loved more?

  30. Thank you so much for posting this. I really needed it. I graduated from college about a year ago and really struggled to find a suitable job in my field of study. I did find a job but not as good as I expected. My family is encouring me to pursue further education but I have sort of lost hope. I took the GMAT last year to enroll in MBA but I did not do so well. I am trying to enroll in graduate school for Fall 2012 semester so I was thinking about taking the GMAT once again. But whenever I try to open the book, I have this sinking feeling that no matter how much I study I won’t do well. I don’t believe in myself and my abilities. Reading your post sparked that hope and enthusiasm in me. So thank you. Congrats on making to FP. Happy Friday!

    • Tee: I’m so glad! And here’s what I say: you may do better on the GMAT or you may not, but working toward it will bring you SOMETHING. If we set goals and work toward them, we will get SOMEWHERE, whether it’s where we are headed or some other delightful place. We just need to keep working hard! You never know what great things can happen.

  31. BTW, just for perspective … if you guys think an F is a sin, you have never taught or gone to a working-class, punishment-oriented school where underachievement was the key to social acceptance, where the last thing the teachers wanted was a kid who stood out like a sore thumb much less the pack of wolves other students in the classroom. Try getting a solid wall of As in an environment like that and you’ll find out real fast what’s a sin.

    Schools teach very little, when it all comes down to it, about success OR failure.

  32. I think one helpful hint is to assign the class the task of writing a list of things about themselves that they do well. I have taught that and still use it myself.

    For example, if I must confront a salesperson with a return and I have to courage to do it myself, I say afterward, “You did a great job handling that. You didn’t get angry, didn’t let him intimidate you; you kept to the facts. Great job.”

    I give myself a pat on the shoulder if nobody else is there to do it.


  33. Excellent post – and a real reminder that sincere effort leads to sincere results. Something we can all learn from, and know, yet need to sometimes be reminded of. Thanks for sharing this post!

  34. I was doing some reading about this a while back and gave come to the conclusion its stemmed from the “you can achieve anything you want to” .attitude instilled by parents of the last generation.
    “If you want to do something then the sky is the limit. ”

    Sorry guys, you’re not all going to be living legends.

    At 27 though, I still struggle with this myself. Delete blog posts because they aren’t good enough. Pack down my perfectly viable business because I’m not making millions in my first year. Change paths when I hit a small setback because maybe id do “better” somewhere else.

    Thanks for the insight!

  35. Thank you for inviting us into your classroom. It’s always interesting to hear the teacher’s side of classroom dialogues. I meet with students 1:1 on a daily basis to check on their studies, so hearing your voice was very enlightening!

    In the past couple weeks, I’ve either heard or read thoughts on failure & its importance in learners’ lives – weird. Maybe it’s a darn good sign that I need to pay closer attention to opportunities to examine failures as essential for learners’ growth?… Hm. I’m naive enough to have thought it was obvious – just write something & then you’ll dig deeper & weed out the unnecessary bits & find the essential pieces.

    It’ll be interesting to hear how things continue with your students & to see what progress they make!

  36. I’m not a native English speaker, but that didn’t keep me from understanding the essence of your post. Impressive stuff. I do wonder how you would define ‘grit’ though.
    My college days are some 30 years ago. Fear of failure kept me from pursuing the education that would have made me happy, career wise. Fear of failure and lack of inspiring teachers.

  37. Oh my gosh, I’m a junior in high school and this post came at just the right time! I’m currently not doing so hot in my AP U.S History class and I started to feel hopeless and compared myself to the classmates around me who were obviously perfect. This post made me realize that good grades, while they do have value, aren’t everything and the more important part of school is learning! I’m actually going to go to bed without worrying anymore! Thank you!

  38. Doing nothing because you’re frozen or afraid is the biggest failure of all. You should tell your students that no one has ever written a perfect essay the first time out in any of your classes, because it takes practice. Whether it’s true or not, it takes away the pressure to be perfect, and puts the emphasis on finishing the class much better essayists than when they started.

  39. Wow, what timing. I handed back essays today in my class and am, of course, a mean teacher who doesn’t care. Nevermind that we’ve spent every class preparing for the essays and nevermind that the only students who did poorly didn’t follow the directions. It is so nice to see other teachers struggle with their students’ grading obsessions. Thanks for sharing.

  40. Ooh, a writing challenge! Can I even write a commentary?

    In her blog post, Fail Better, Siobhan Curious illustrates the practical application of a simple, but often elusive principle. It is better to try and fail than to fail utterly because you did not try. By ten months, most of us have embraced this principle, eagerly taking our first steps, and by ten years, we have forsaken it again.

    Curious uses a classroom assignment as a perfect example. Her students face a challenge that seems too great and many of them struggle to take that first baby step. She shows us clearly how words of encouragement alone do not produce the necessary confidence. It is that first step, beginning the assignment, that gives her students the confidence to finish it.

    She further explains the simple reason for the success of this principle. Trying builds personal character. Personal character is fundamental for success in life. Curious gives us a simple four-letter word for personal character – grit – and she calls on us to focus more on our grit.

    Fail Better is well-written and inspirational. I recommend taking the time to read it and I applaud Freshly Pressed for having the grit to select it.

  41. I have to be honest to you. I am a poor writer, but I still hold 2 degrees. I am not even 30 years old. I think your words were harsh to your students. I don’t think this is a right way to persuade them to pass the exam. As a writing Professor, it is fundamental to act at least as a diplomat showing your High Level of Politeness. I still have problems with grammars. I proudly assume and confess. But, I don’t plan to teach someday. Your students might choose majors that are not related to Literature. I believe even Bill Gates which makes billions of dollars is not the best writer. Is it wrong for students to ask for help? Just 5 minutes? Lord, if I were them I would definetely go to the head of department to complain about you.

  42. Good Lord, I needed to read this about 4 weeks ago. I’m college senior, majoring in English. I’m in one of my last semesters, and challenges in literature courses seem always to be leering at me. This gave me new perspective. “Grit” is what all students need to develop. I’ve been working so hard on the ability to handle failure, and STILL keep going. We may not always do our best at everything, but we have to keep going. I can’t thank you enough for posting this!

  43. I can definitely relate to this. I think the problem is that some students might have gotten good marks in high school so when they get to college they almost feel entitled to getting good marks. So it was like either they do it well or they don’t do it at all. A better way to do it, though, is to complete instead of perfect, and then polish it after completion. I am working really hard to do this myself, but there are still times when I just don’t want to put anything on the paper because it just doesn’t seem right.

    • Word. Someone’s actually studied the comparative benefits of pure intelligence vs. hard work for students, and found that students who were told repeatedly how smart they were actually did worse and showed less persistence than kids who were praised for their hard work but not their intelligence. The hypothesis is that when kids know they’re smart, they (naturally) think that things should be easy for them, especially so if things always have been easy in the past. When something is harder than they’re used to, it runs up against their self-concept of being smart–they’re afraid to try it and feel dumb.

  44. Wow. I think I’ve really fallen into this category for a while, now. Whenever I wrote my first manuscript, it was fun. I was writing it to see if I could do it. It turned out better than I would have dreamed, though in need of polishing. Then, I took a break and worked on articles, etc. For a year, now, I’m constantly moaning about how I haven’t written more than a couple of chapters since the first one was completed. If I would just go into it thinking that the world wouldn’t end, maybe I could get back on that writing horse.

    Thanks for sharing and for the advice.

    – Raymond

  45. I work with teachers at the middle school level. The seeds are planted for the phenomenon you describe well before our teachers see these students. I do see that when teachers don’t present themselves as absolute in their own expertise, the students learn to take more risks. When an educator makes a mistake and re-examines their thoughts, children are more likely to adopt that attitude.

    I wonder if some of the pressure of getting into college and beyond has set some of these learners up for a false image of success. In this era, when the economy and its demise are pinned to school performance, and unemployment awaits holders of degrees, there can be little room for imperfection.

    It seems like part of the dilemma is that you can hardly tell someone that everything will be okay when it so clearly is not perceived that way. Of course, if we admit that we haven’t yet found a solution, maybe our students won’t expect that they have to.

  46. A highly enjoyable read about life in a real classroom. Be thankful you have students who care enough about their writing to try…I have no doubt that has everything to do with you. Keep teaching and working for them! Congrats on being Freshly Pressed, too!

  47. Your post is both encouraging and solidifies much of what I’ve been trying to do in the classroom. I’m an inner-city high school teacher and for the first time in my career I’m teaching my students how to fail! If students are unwilling to fail, they will be unwilling to take risks, and if they’re unwilling to risk they limit their potential to achieve great things. I’ve been trying to help my students disassociate many of the negative connotations around the idea of failure. If you’re interested, I often use Steve Job’s 2005 Stanford commencement address as a way to teach students about the importance of changing their perceptions of failure –

    All the best!

  48. I work at a (progressive) school where the director circulated the same NYTimes article. Kudos to you! You seem like a teacher who really cares about what your teaching. Need more like you.

  49. Hello. Good post. Yes, when I was a kid, I hated to write essay.
    But now I am getting better. I have my own blog and enjoyed writing posts.

    I’ve learn not to be afraid of what other people thinks of me, and not to be afraid of people judges me.
    If you want to do it, JUST do it! Thanks for sharing this post! 🙂

  50. Beautiful! Teaching determination and character rather than coddling (good job! nice effort! A’s for everyone!) is much more beneficial to students in the long-term, because it mirrors life and not a fairy tale. Keep fighting the good fight!

  51. Absolutely true! As a music teacher, there is almost no other way to have kids learn. No one picks up the trumpet and sounds like Wynton Marsalis two seconds later.

    If our culture would only tolerate mistakes a little more easily, maybe our students wouldn’t be so hard on themselves out of failure-phobia.

  52. I’m studying to be a history teacher and my last ed class covered intellectual genius v. motivation and how one’s intellect is a small contributing factor to success. This post reminded me of that. Thanks for sharing.

  53. Very eye-opening post, Siobhan. You are right that failure is about teaching someone to not only learn from his or her mistakes but also teach him or her about taking risks and being resilient. Secondly, failure also gives people the chance to experience which can help them to succeed later on. Unfortunately, I know some people who think failing equates the person being a real loser. But what do they know what exactly is the true meaning of dare to fail, learn from it and succeed later? A real successful person to me is defined as someone who dares to fail, keeps his head up high regardless, never gives up and keeps on trying and working hard until success comes.

    • Another practical dimension needs to be talked about. The stigma of failure has led some to indulge in malpractices like faking certificates etc. In another HR forum I have seen HR professionals stating that it is a common problem in recruitment process – dealing faked academic and experience certificates.
      Industry knows no employee is perfect but while recruiting the emphasis is on excellent track record – aka no failures – rather than on perseverance despite odds which actually is what leads to success many a times. The mindset of society itself needs a change and not just that of students.

  54. As a student, in class essays irritate me quite a lot. I tend to do good in them, only because of my profuse talent for conjuring up bullshit on the spot. I suspect actually having to research and construct a proper essay would show me up for the idiot I am.

  55. I started reading this article, and I thought “This sounds exactly like my AP Lit class.” We recently analyzed a piece for the authors social commentary or something. It’s not something I’m unfamiliar with–I learned this last year in AP Lang–but i was still as lost as some of my friends who hadn’t done so before.
    Writing can be hard and sometimes it’s just a matter of how to start. I’ve learned that your ideas are right. You just need to write something. My teacher last year was also big on telling us to write down whatever came to mind(although she also always said to leave out the fluff, and to this day I still can’t tell between extra information and fluff…)
    That said I still failed that essay. Some people just take too long to plan. Hahaha.

  56. Grit is literally what people who achieve excellence have, and what procrastinators who are used to failing lack. I loved this post. Thank you VERY much; I happen to be a medical student who is going through tough times with studies and bleh, and reading this was like a ‘doh’ moment for me.

  57. What a fantastic post! Thank you so much for this.

    Being able to assess yourself and learn from your mistakes is vital and a major part of the learning process. I hope that your students make progress with their commentaries (good luck guys – commentaries are really difficult as I’m learning now!), and if not then I am sure that they will be able to pull through and go on to succeed, with your support and encouragement.

    Best wishes,

  58. Wonderful. As a student, I’m pleased that somebody who has authority has finally taken a stand and said something meaningful about what students are supposed to learn.

    I’d like to write a full out comment, but in my excitement, I actually wrote an entire post (700+ words) on this topic, to reply to your article. If you have the time, please do take a look at it:

  59. Wow Siobhan….that’s a beautiful rendition. It happens in class. You think you have given them everything they need, all the tools of English, and then you come back to square one and the teacher is getting educated all over again.

    It takes a while to get to the realization though….nice of you to share…..

  60. Pure Inspiration that’s what i got here. I am not a teacher, but I can relate as a student who is afraid of writing. In fact in my trade writing your own stuff is crucial. And following some equally fabulous advise a few days ago, i started writing something in notepad with Title “I must write something.. anything”
    I had three clues under the bell to get going on.
    1. Try to put some time aside to write some 500 – 800 words daily
    2. READ. if you can’t read you may as well forget about writing.
    3. If you are certain you are going to fail, Fail Fast. Then Fail again, faster.
    4. If you are writing crap, it’s ACTUALLY GOOD. Sure sign of progress. (Could my writing reflect a tiny progress of a few days?) Most many great writers started out with crap except for few chosen ones who were born gifted.

    Exception conforms to the rule.

    “My New York Sunday Times was still sitting on the table, untouched. I pulled out the Magazine, to discover, on the cover, Paul Tough’s essay “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?” In it, he interviews teachers, principals and other educators who believe that “character” – variously defined – is a more important ingredient in long-term life success than academic smarts are….”

    Incredible, if you come to think about it, isn’t it so?
    Anyways while going thru your post i was thinking about something and wish to share it here though it’s no big deal yet.

    I too am experiencing things such as whatever is puzzling me on the inside, i happen to find related material (blogs, posts, websites etc.) tackling providing, interacting on that same issue.
    Eg. I found this blog , though i was not particularly searching for it.

    Could this be due to “Law of Attraction” at work, may be it is , may be not.
    Whatever, I found something to read/write and make little progress today.

    It was a very useful post for me personally. Plan to put link to on my Blog (yet to be conceived)

    My heart felt Thanks to you.

  61. Thank you for posting this Siobhan! I only graduated from university so I remember exactly the kind of situation you described. It’s so easy to become discouraged and lose faith in ourselves when we’re unsure whether we’re doing the exercise (or work!) correctly. I think you definitely should help your students strengthen their grit–I’m sure they will be very thankful!

  62. As a student… That was a great read.
    As a sophomore in high school, my own teachers sound very different from this. Which is unfortunate, but at least this read has made me feel more empowered to not give up. To keep going. One teacher might not be supportive; that doesn’t justify giving up.

  63. Well, what do we reward in school? Do we reward risks that end in failure? Or do we call them . . . failure?

    It seems to me your students have learned exactly what the last 12 years of school have tried to teach them: don’t write it down unless you’re sure it’s perfect. Now you are seeking to undo that–terrific. However, one sentence is revealing: “Now that they know they’ll be graded, they’re panicking.” Maybe they should not be graded. Or, if grading is necessary, it should evaluate them on what you value most: grit. (I’m being a little playful here. One can evaluate someone’s level of grit, but it might be counterproductive to do so.)

    From your comments, I see this isn’t heresy to you.

    There’s an educational thinker who writes all about the phenomenon you’re observing, and he’s extremely readable and a great teacher: John Holt, especially in his book How Children Fail.

    Glad you were Freshly Pressed–this made an interesting read!

    (BTW, I question whether KIPP is remarkably successful with kids in difficulty. From their admission process, it seems unlikely that most kids in difficulty would even enroll. There’s nothing like screening out the worst students for making your graduation rate look impressive.)

  64. Thank you all so much for your thoughtful and articulate comments! It’s not humanly possible for me to reply to them all individually – it’s as much as I can do to keep up with reading them all. However, I see that some of you have subscribed to my blog – thank you! If you comment on future (or past!) posts, I will give you the individual attention you deserve.

    • The no. of individual replies you have given is itself awesome!
      btw, in case you have not seen it (very unlikely) here is an awesome video like the Steve Job’s one someone has cited earlier. This is from Randy Pausch of CMU

  65. I’m happy to see that you’re taking the time to right it down. Someone took the time to encourage you to fail well, at some point, and to try again. And, yes, the kind of person we/they become is more important than anything, but, at least through grade 12, the testing frenzy makes it risky to focus on character.

  66. I loved111111111111111111I loved this post. I think so much of the problem is fear of failure. I do improv based training and one of the things we focus on is accepting failure as a part of trying. I’m wondering if you would consider contacting some of the improv trainers in your area about helping your class learn the importance of accepting failure. You might want to contact Caitlin McClure. If she can’t help you she may know of somone who can.

    • Acceptance of failure I believe is good for the soul. It is so nice to know that there are people in this crazy success driven world that are ready to take on the challenge of teaching failure as success. Acceptance allows for growth, failure allows for growth is the point Im sure you and your improv training class is exploring.

      • We I It is not only good for the soul, it is an essential part of success. There are scores of good quotes on the subject, but as a sport’s fan I like this one from Michael Jordan: “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

  67. Thanks for this, Siobhan. You are absolutely right (as is Tough!). In so many aspects of life, whether personal or professional, the most important thing is to have a go, believe it’s possible and see what happens. As the saying goes, if you think you can or you think you can’t, either way you’ll be right.

    Personally, I think it can be taught, but the fear of letting kids fail in many Western education systems now means that a lot aren’t encouraged to try.

    It’s fantastic to see someone passing on these important lessons to kids, as well as the important, but much more specific lessons of their courses themselves. It’s a good lesson for aspiring writers, like me too – persistenece in the face of daunting odds!

  68. I wish I had that type of attitude in a professor when I was doing composition class. Not that he wasn’t great, but I really like the challenge you brought to your class. I love a good challenge and sometimes felt like I was never being pushed far enough as a college student. Aspiring writers, Aspiring students, all of that energy and breath wasted on negativity could have been focused more on a positive outcome individually.

  69. As a student who has failed, I have come to realize that I was my own worst enemy. I would see the work ahead and would say “there is no way I can accomplish this” I had to learn the hard way that this type of thinking only foster’s failure. Thanks for your post!

  70. As a teacher in the UK I couldn’t agree more. Our culture is predicated on critique, the pressure placed on teachers to achieve ever improving results has removed any emphasis of pupil/student critical autonomy, and furthermore the risk averse teacher led paradigms of art education undermine pupil/student creativity which must be mediated and emergent.

    My point after all that verbiage is this:

    a teacher who is teaching their students to achieve must also allow their students to fail.

  71. Wow, nice post. At the beginning on June 2012 I have some important exams. The grades I will get will “decide” at what highschool I will go(I’m in the 8th grade). I’m really scared about these exams, but I will do my best, that way, even if I fail, at least I’ll know that I did all I could. Thanks for the post!

  72. I was thrilled and relieved to see that teachers really look at their students and realize how they are feeling. I am in my second year of college at the moment and school seems to be more overwhelming than ever. I am often a perfectionist when it comes to class, and much like your students, stare blankly at the page if I cannot find the Absolute Answer. I never give up on a problem, I make sure to solve it. However, when I do poorly I tend to let it bring me down. Reading your piece on Grit truly gave me a new perspective. Sometimes failing can get you farther. It seems bad at the time, but if I get something wrong once I won’t get it wrong again. Thank you again, for giving inspiration to keep going. 😀

  73. I am really liking this post!!! I hate to sound selfish but it helps me to feel better in knwoing that other instructors feel the same way and have encountered the same resistance. Thank you for sharing!!!

  74. it is true how we as people never trust that we can accomplish great things, all we have to do is try and believe in ourselves and that we can achieve great things. when you buy a certain book for leisure you would read it and get excited about what happens in the story but if that same book was given to that same student in the class and the teacher forces him to read it he would not want to because he is forced to do something he does not want to. teenagers are always trying to rebel by doing what they want and when u force them to do something they will always go the other way and not is always gonna be hard to make the students understand the importance of learning a certain subject and that it is important to try their best to succeed in it so the best thing anyone can do is not put too much pressure on them and hopefully they will come around and try and learn.

  75. Couldn’t agree more. One of the most common things I see as a high school teacher in an urban school is students who decide they’re probably going to fail, and so they refuse to try. Absolute failure by choosing to fail seems to be a better option to them than failure by trying and not doing well. It’s like they realize that if they just choose to not try, they don’t have to face their shortcomings or the work it would to improve.

    Beautifully articulated thoughts.

  76. I recently saw something that said FAIL – First Attempt in Learning!

    Your college level English students are no different than my Kindergarteners. Since the beginning of school (mid-August) we have been writing every day. The writing is a guided exercise where we sound out words together and I write them on the board – the students write the words on their papers. Starting this month they will be given the opportunity to sound out words on their own. By the end of the month they should be writing sentences on their own. Now some children will only write beginning sounds of words – but that’s the expectation for Kinders. It’s my students who refuse to write anything because they want to spell it perfectly that I will have to work with the most. I teach them to take a chance, to try and sound out the words on their own. Inevitably there will be tears. Eventually they take those first steps on their own.

    By the end of the year most of my students can compose 3-4 sentences on a topic. Is every word spelled correctly? Not even close. But they have begun to put thoughts on paper and that is huge!

  77. I am currently revising for a media law exam using the same make of pen featured in the picture at the top of your piece. Hoping that’s a sign that I’ll pass – but you’re probably right: grit is nearer the mark for getting things done.

  78. I took the liberty to comment your entry, although I know that is not the protocol on blogs unless you have something really godd to say, however after 131 comments, mine won´t make a difference! I definitely enjoyed the article. This is the type of thing I like to read about, it gives me another perspective. My like was number 92 on facebook!

  79. I really appreciate your take on what’s important in education. One thing though…you use the phrase, “face down my limitations…”. Instead of facing them down or seeing our limitations as something to be overcome, I think it’s important to embrace our limitations. This is not to say that we should settle for mediocrity, no, not at all. We need to embrace our limitations and know where we struggle, so that WHEN we fail (and it will happen from time to time) we can say, it’s ok that I messed up/didn’t do as well on that test as I hoped/burnt the dinner again/had trouble delegating tasks/etc… and it’s also okay to get out there and try again. It’s okay to ask for help from someone who is better at “X” than I am. It’s okay that I’m not superior at everything, but I am going to try my absolute best. It’s okay that I have limitations, but it won’t stop me from trying.

  80. I’m gald I’m not the only teacher who feels this way. We now spend so much time answering the question “Is this going to be on the test?” that we have lost the main purpose of learning at all: mastery of the subject.

    And it IS hard to just dig in for the sake of knowledge because todays students want an immediate payoff, and education is not always like that.

    My first impression of my students who say they “can’t” is that they have become accustomed to not doing andything or trying anything new, and precious few are willing to do the introspecion personal writing requires.

  81. Great story. Sometimes you have to try something and fail before you try it again and succeed. As someone mentioned earlier, this is something that applies also to other circumstances. Enjoyed reading this, really did. Congrats on making Freshly Pressed!

  82. Very well said! I am 100% in agreement with you! To try and end up failing isn’t exactly a failure because it teaches us to be braver, to be tougher, to strive to be better. Sometimes, success isn’t the most important thing. Maybe knowing that we’ve tried to do something and be someone is what is more important. It is in trying, in failing, and in continuing to try that we truly learn who we are, what we are capable of, and up to what extent are we willing to reach our dreams. Let us, therefore, not be afraid of failing, but more importantly, let us not be afraid to try. I know every second of an attempt is worthwhile and gives room for improvement.

  83. thanks for writing! I was teaching college English for the past two years and in an odd way your post made me miss it. Very true, many don’t think they can actually put an assignment together when really they’ve had it in them all along. Also, a/b KIPP Schools, watch Waiting for Superman if you haven’t already!

  84. I definitely agree, grit is something that is learned through failures, picking yourself up, and going at it again. It’s probably also learned from experiencing stuff in life and going after what you need to achieve. I’ve been that student who has wanted desperately to do well, and who has also caused her mind to go blank thinking so hard. You really want to do well, but if you don’t, like you said the world isn’t going to end.

  85. You inspire me Siobhan. Teachers learn more each day from their students. As we teach, we learn. The insights you have are very true. I missed the days when I used to teach young kids, too. May we have more teachers like you. Thanks for posting.

  86. Thank you for this.. As a very new blogger and a fourth semester college student with learning disabilities this was a great thing to read! It helps on several levels!

  87. The audacity of one who ventures into new thought. This is something which receives continual negative re-enforcement in academia. Originality is regarded by many institutions as a poor character trait. Following the rules, so that one is always correct, and out of trouble, is the mandate of a suitable character – in the aging eyes of our institutions and religions. This constraining renders us dependent and subjective. The injury manifests belied by the facade of laziness; when indeed it is simply institutional violation of the mind.

    The end state of following the rules was nearly a nuclear termination of higher life phyla on the planet. As a younger man I enjoined this raucous battle cry without circumspection. In the end the rules makers turned out to be rather inept. They knew neither god, nor naturalism, truth nor falsehood, reality nor fiction. The duplicitous natures of our universe, both in one particle yet wave, both voluminous yet small, and ageless yet finite, decries our arrogance; teasing us that there is no truth, save for that the old truth proved false.

    Wise is the teacher who first dawns this path in the minds of those who envision the future. 🙂

  88. Yes! Grit! So well said. I also teach writing, and boy am I teaching an audience that is hard on themselves: Korean teachers of English between the ages of 27 and 56. Most of them come to class having never taken a writing class, yet in a few years they will be expected to teach composition skills to their students. We are in our 4th week of the semester — with about 20 more to go — yet they believe they need to understand how to organize a paragraph right now. I just taught them the concept of supporting sentences last week! Despite this, they strive for perfection. Through the eyes of perfection, they turn into sweaty piles of nerves. They can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.

    I imagine that to learn grit, someone in the students life needs to understand the importance of this characteristic. Perhaps you are that person now. They may not display grit at the moment, but they may show signs of it at the end of your program.

    Fantastic post, and great food for thought. Thank you.

  89. The first time I failed something was my hazard perception test for driving. I was gutted because until that time I had never ever failed a single thing I did. But I gave it a go again and got the permit to do the practical test which went smoothly. I learned it was OK to try again and pass.

  90. I related so much to your students because like them I am also poor in coming up with ideas especially when faced with such pressure from the subject. I salute because of your concern to your student, I wish I had a professor like you, I am now at my second semester of first year in college, I don’t know what to expect yet, but I will not be afraid of failing.
    May God bless you and all the readers!

  91. I want to thank you all again so much for your thoughtful comments – I’ve enjoyed reading them so much. I hope you keep coming back to leave your thoughts on other posts – I can’t possibly reply to everyone on this one, but I would love to converse with you on other topics when the flood of responses is a little gentler! In the meantime, I am loving hearing what you all have to say on this subject. Thank you!

  92. I adored this post. Although it does not compare to be a college professor, I work as a Writing Tutor at my college, and I often find myself editing the papers of my fellow students, and helping them in developing more confidence in their capabilities.

    In a society that seems to greatly emphasize on perfection and success, failing or falling short seems like the greatest tragedy that could ever befall a person. Thus people are willing to do whatever it takes to avoid failure, when they actually do not realize that sometimes a little failure helps bring us to where we need to be.

    Your post served as a wonderful reminder of that. Thank-you.

  93. Incredible post! I only wish I’d seen this a couple of days ago, because I really needed this advice yesterday, when I sat for a writing exam and was unable to finish my essay before the time ran out.

    Anyway, I’m glad I read this because the next time I have to write an essay in a short time I’ll try to remember that I shouldn’t second guess myself.

    Congrats on reaching Freshly Pressed.


  94. I think this is so true. But I think it’s true of more than schoolwork. It’s true of writing, most definitely. It’s true of music. And it’s absolutely true of dance. I watched this video with Misty Copeland not long ago, who’s a dancer, and she said that a pretty body is all too easy to find, that it’s not about what you look like, it’s about taking what you’ve got and turning it into something amazing. That was what I needed to hear, struggling with the thought that I’m not the right shape for what I want to do.
    Thank you for this post. I’m currently trying to write an essay which is not very fun (I’m incredibly sleep-deprived), so this was a welcome and *useful* distraction 🙂

  95. Excellent read! This applies not only for schoolwork but writing in general. May it be writing a short story, an academic paper, a book, a screenplay or anything in general. This advice also applies to many things in general, where we all procrastinate at different levels. This advice addresses many issues. Excellent blog.

  96. I love this post. When I was (lucky to be..) teaching college studio art, it was much of the same story with my students. The challenge for them was to apply an abstract concept visually into a composition which demonstrated their grasp of the tools they were learning. It was an incredibly daunting challenge, but the results of their efforts and the growth each one exhibited over the semester consistently amazed me. I had to remind my students that “failure” was sometimes the greatest success because in that attempt they took risks and trusted their instincts and exhibited confidence in their decision making. Even better was when they reintegrated that experience into their next project.

    I believe that teaching students to fail and learn from it – to solve problems and think critically – is so much more important than many of the lessons we teach them. It’s something no test can measure. It is rewarding to read other teachers’ accounts of this approach. I loved your story. Thank you so much for sharing!

  97. I personally think this stems from students being encouraged to constantly consider the future (e.g., college, law/med school admissions, career success), which prevents them from living, and learning, in the present. At least that’s what happened to me.

    In high school, every essay and test seemed like the make-or-break link to an elite college. In college, it was the same case, except this time around it determined which tier of law school I could attain. I remember my news writing professor saying in my sophomore year of college, “You’re worried about the perfection that you cannot yet achieve.” I think this fear-of-failure plague is seen in students especially with writing assignments because they’re so open-ended, and students have yet to fully develop an understanding of the in-between possibilities, as opposed to one-or-the-other thinking.

    Eventually, I started to see the light, but I can’t imagine how much more learning I would have experienced in high school and college had this happened sooner. And how much happier I would have been (and would be).

  98. One way to teach grit is to talk openly with students about the trauma that underlies the need: students, at least where I come from, grow up in a culture that’s psychologically similar to the frontier in the film True Grit: judgment is harsh, justice is unpredictable, and you are on your own when it comes to survival. It’s no wonder they are afraid to risk the vulnerability of writing, to risk expressing an idea of their own. Most of them have already been punished for it.

    But it’s possible to undo the previous red-pen damage that students carry, no matter how severe it is, even within a graded structure. I have had many students so frozen up that they were unable to write a single word at the start of the term. Yet because they have been silenced for so long, they usually have a lot to say, and given the right antidote for paralysis, they become the ones who end up writing with the most authenticity and passion. I teach writing for a college Women in Transition program, and nearly every term I have at least one student who tells a story on paper that she has never told anyone in real life.

    Teachers can also de-emphasize grades, even if we must give them. I do that by not putting grades on papers, but instead giving specific feedback for revision, by offering multiple revision opportunities, and by basing grades for the class partially on effort, attendance and improvement. The key is to create a safe environment within which students can rebuild confidence.

    Here’s a link to a longer rant about judgment, if anyone is interested:

  99. Do you know what is great about your post? It speaks the truth, and I don’t think that there is a teacher or a student anywhere who cannot relate. You hit the nail on the head, half the time all students need is for someone to tell them “You can do this”, it is also important for them to hear that the world isn’t going to end if they fail. Learning from our failures are some of life’s most valuable lessons. Our students need to know that as adults, we fail too. We’re all human after all. Thanks for this wonderful post.

  100. What’s the Internet Parlance? Ah yes…


    I tell my students (college-level English and writing) the exact same thing. I try to remind them that everyone and anyone has the potential to do this. They just need to shake off that uncertainty.

  101. THANK YOU. I’m having an absolute shitter of a day, struggling with my anxiety and jobless-ness, but now I have a new motto: ‘If you fail, fail as well as you can, and then try again.’ I’m off to try again.

  102. Loved the Post and wonderful job altogether i might add.

    I am a college student myself working on double major and i can see that the biggest problem that people around my age are facing is the fact that they feel hopeless when coming across something in life for the first time( be it a new type of assignment or a social issue that comes up-doesnt really matter). That in my opinion is logical to happen and would be bizarre if it wouldn occur, but i believe that people around my age are receiving this type of education where the only thing they do learn is to either encounter and deal with things either in a ”very confined space”(meaning that we encounter circumstances that might occur under CERTAIN circumstances) or we are taught to do things in a mechanical order…

    Young people need to be taught that they have to make up the calls-and that ranges from what to wear today, to how to write a commentary text, which decision to make for themselves etc-.

    The only way you can teach people to have grit as you call it, in my opinion is following the same principle that follows learning a bicycle….if you wont get up on the bicycle, face challenges by your own, trip down and stand back up again, you ll never gonna learn…

    Of course stress to youngsters these days is great, uncertain economic situations, uncertain job opportunities-everything turns younger people get to the so called ”safe mode” where the purpose is not to learn and to evolve yourself but simply survive and try to find a pattern that works in life.

    Awesome blog and awesome text, keep it up 🙂

    • The bicycle analogy is awesome! If you are afraid of falling you can’t ever learn to ride a bicycle. But there is a difference. Everybody knows including the new learner that it is normal and ok to fall. But in school, college, work and life we don’t extend that attitude.

      Homo sapiens, eh! 🙂

  103. Ahhh….an honest blogger!…just what I love!

    I also teach post-secondary education. My background is in math and sciences (Dental Hygiene) and I was never fond of English (or History, for that matter!) This post is funny to me because it proves that no matter what subject our students are faced with, the classroom environment is the same! We have strong, smart students who lack one needed element: the ability to believe in themselves.

  104. Great post. and so true!
    I especially liked the part where you said that failing this assignment doesn’t mean its the end of the world. You always learn from your failures, inside and outside class.

  105. I have to tell you, this is exactly why I pulled my kids out of school and began home schooling them. I have intelligent kids. But I have intelligent kids who think that if they cannot do perfectly the first time, then they cannot do it all. I know I had/have this same attitude. And so you know what? We’re spending a lot of our first year home schooling practicing… failure. What does it mean when we “fail”? What should happen AFTER we have failed. Does the sky fall down? And if it doesn’t, what happens the next day?

    Once they are confident in failure, they’ll be able to succeed. I just wish it wasn’t so emotionally draining! That’s the hardest part. The tears, the absolute certainty that when they wake up in the morning the world will have ended because in fourth grade, my oldest cannot write a paragraph perfectly the first time. It’s heart breaking! And I only have two. I can only imagine how hard it is for you.

  106. It’s evening on a Sunday and I’m reading this post, thinking about something else that happened a bit earlier this evening … I got an automated phone call from my son’s middle school, from the principal to all the parents, letting us know that “testing is serious business these days” and practically pleading with us to “please prepare your children to be good test-takers”. You see, our state standardized testing is to begin tomorrow. Perhaps if schools would stop being so damned concerned about standardized test scores and get back to actually teaching (and absolutely, part of teaching is teaching how to handle a failure), perhaps if schools would please stop putting so much pressure on kids to make sure they never, ever make a mistake – maybe you’ll start to see more college kids who aren’t paralyzed in the face of possible failure …

  107. Love this article. I was one of those students who had a reputation of being perfect so when my grades started slipping in sixth grade, I just gave up for a time and half-assed everything all through Jr. high and the first year of high school, expecting to fail (which I usually did, which only reinforced my belief that failure was what I was destined for most, if not all, of the time).

    When I was half-way through high school, I finally got it in my head that if I didn’t try, I was gonna fail and deserved to fail, but if I made a decent attempt, failing wasn’t all that bad and I could learn from that failure and do better next time. It’s a lesson I’ve had to relearn a few times since then, but I always do my best now, even if the result isn’t what I’d like it to be.

    I’m gonna read this whenever I need a confidence boost. 🙂

  108. I am a current college student in my third semester. I carry a similar mentality when it comes to school. I struggled a lot the first semester of college last year. My essays, that I thought would be good turned out not being so great. See, I came from a high school with a graduating class of 840 students. Our class sizes were about 45-50 students, and we didn’t write a lot of papers or essays. I knew what I wanted to say, it was all in my head, but when I wrote it down on paper it didn’t sound too great. I had started visiting the writing center at my university, and just kept going over my papers. Editing and re-editing. I learned a lot about writing.
    In my English and writing classes my first semester, my grades were low, but I just kept visiting the center, and got lots of help and I improved greatly. I went from getting C’s on my papers to getting A’s by the end of the year.

  109. As a student who has graduated with awards, I find this very true. The most basic of success in everything you do is believing that you can. You can never accomplish anything if, in the first place, you already believe that you can’t. Everything follows from there…

  110. I agree that the fright of doing things wrong is really experienced by students of all ages. I am still a student right now and hopefully graduating next year. Sometimes, i experience things like this as well, especially when i don’t really have even a pinch of idea on the subject, but thankfully, surmounted it.

    That kind of attitude is what I am noticing in my classmate right now, and like that outrage that you felt for your students, i also felt it on my classmates. It’s just that i feel that it is so unfair that I try my best to squeeze the little knowledge that i have yet, even a little effort can’t be gained from them, and the worst is that they sometimes rely on what i have done as a pattern, though they are very aware that we are on the same level of wit on the matter.

    I tried to tell them my concern, but they always answer me that they don’t trust their own opinions. I feel that if i continue on telling them what to do, they might not be able to do things on their own. And the worst thing is that, soon, we will be entering the outside world where that fright is not tolerated. What would become of us if we didn’t learn to overcome that fear?

  111. Wow! I’m currently a high school senior (and an honors/AP student). I see this all the time in my class. The girl that’s ranked 2nd in our class is always the most vocal “i don’t get it” or “I can’t do this” personality. Optimism and persistence are just as valuable in the classroom as smarts are. What’s better; optimism and persistence are more valuable outside of the classroom than smarts are! Thank you for an excellent post!


  112. This is SOOOOO very good.

    I am a band director.
    I have a saying “Park and honk”, meaing sometimes, we have to just try without caring what kind of (possibly ugly) sounds come out.

    I have my students raise their hands and say this promise with me.

    “In this class,
    mistakes are ok.
    I give myself permission to make ugly noises.
    I don’t know the words “I can’t”,
    But rather, I will try
    We will be a class of risk takers and we will be brave.”

    I think I will add to the end.

    “And we will have TRUE GRIT!!!”

    Thanks for your encouraging words.
    Much luck to you the rest of the year!

  113. Wow, I absolutely love this! I’m currently in college and I put so much pressure on myself to get the A’s, or a perfect score. But it’s not about that. I can only do so much, so why stress myself out if I know I’m doing my best. Thanks for this… it’s a great eye opener!

  114. Ever read Seth Godin’s blog? He claims that the more you are failing (giving up on the irrational fear of failing), the more successful you get.
    Steven Pressfield gives much detailed insight about failure in his book “The War of Art”.
    I highly recommend reading it.

    Great post. I really enjoyed this real-life description and the thoughts along.

  115. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. ~Samuel Beckett

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments. The NYTimes article was great and I appreciate your giving it more “traction”.

    Congrats on the FP too!

  116. absolutly right.!~ It is so real. As my country saying, failure is mother of success..but after reading your blog, I think I know how to deal with it ..grazie~

  117. So, I’m curious. Why NOT allow them five minutes to discuss the text before they write? As adults we do this all the time. Isn’t that the point of all those book clubs out there, i.e. to discuss texts? Socrates trembles at the prospect of isolating a person’s writing as if it is a pure distilation of mind, disconnected from and irrelavant to inter-personal dialogue. Discussion is integral to critical thinking.


  118. “Yes, it’s hard. Just keep going. If you fail, fail as well as you can, and then try again.” This should be my mantra for creative writing.

    Thanks for the article! 🙂 Congrats on FP!

  119. I agree with this totally. Too many students give up before trying. They build up the challenge and label it as insurmountable without thinking about it, or at least starting to think.

    Great ideas, great writing, inspired message!

  120. I love how you connected a classroom activity to one of life’s important lessons. I also came across that article by Paul Tough and enjoyed reading it. Yes, teachers should connect classroom lessons with life’s lessons and not only teach writing and grammar but about living and surviving out there in the real world.:) love your post!

  121. The important thing is grit. I have to say;
    I like this idea a lot!
    Sadly, it’s not something I can apply to myself. (I’m a bit of a frantic overachiever; do it right or get out of the game, as my parents would say…)
    But it makes sense when you think about it.
    There are a lot of people who ARE smart, and yet do terribly in school. Being able to try beyond what you think you can is more important than simply being right all the time.

    I’m only in high school, but already I know some people who could do really well and go pretty far with a maxim like that.

    You sound like a really good teacher, and I hope that I might have the utmost pleasure of having someone like you teach my college class when I get out of this place.

  122. I want to once again thank you all for your thoughtful and interesting responses. At this point, there are 200 comments and they just keep coming! I hope you’ll return and comment on other posts, where I’ll do my best to respond to each of you. Thank you all so much.

  123. The same holds true for mathematics education. True mathematics is about the art of crafting a proof, and the trials and tribulations in getting there. It’s about debating the merits of one’s argument, coming up with good counterexamples, and sharing ideas in much the same way we discuss literary works. But in contemporary high schools that is all thrown away in favor of memorizing formulas and parsing irrelevant word problems. It’s no wonder society has a bad opinion of math as dry, flavorless symbol-pushing.

    Wonderful post 🙂

  124. Two thoughts, the first of my son, who the other day was asked to write something about the structure of a sonnet and he chose Keats’ “On the Grasshopper and the Cricket.” He naturally came to me for help. I told him to sit with it for awhile and he would notice something, and something else, and it would unravel for him. Soon he started to notice all the complementary opposites: grasshopper/cricket, summer/winter, outside/inside, song/silence, day/night . . . “Oh my God, this is full of opposites!” he yelled. The real lesson was not about the stucuture of that sonnet but to stick with it a little longer. Second thought, pertaining to grit, is that I’ve found sports is a good place to learn it. Mistakes and failed attempts are an inevitable part of any sport. And as players learn to overcome their fear of failure on the field, they learn to overcome fear of failure in all aspects of their lives. That’s why Physical Education should remain a part of early education.

  125. Thank you for this article. It is always hard for me to start a paper not because I do not know what to write but feel like it is not good enough. I have found that just putting the first thing that come to my mind down and then forgetting about it until a new idea pops in my head to revise it. I am the type of person who hates to be wrong so I don’t want to put anything but you just have to make the best with what you have.

  126. ‘I don’t know how to help her stop, either. But after I whispered “WRITE IT DOWN” one more time, and walked away, she began writing things down. She filled a couple of pages. I haven’t read them yet, but those pages, regardless of what’s on them, are an achievement.”
    I will always remember to ‘WRITE IT DOWN’. Thanks for sharing.

  127. Something I have heard plenty of lately is that college students these days don’t learn to think for themselves, and I see that to be true when all you see are people who believe that success in college is memorizing information and “regurgitating” it later to pass a test. And then after four years of doing that, they will have a successful degree that will bring on more success. It’s stupid that students don’t realize their potential as being learners, all their life, and that thinking for themselves is okay and should be encouraged more than this idea that you must pass tests. It’s good that your students are learning from you the real purpose of being in college. Writing papers in college, for most students, sucks because it’s not something they can memorize and regurgitate, it’s something they have to put some real thought into.

  128. Thanks for your thoughts! I teach electronics at a vocational school and have been learning a lot about the role of failure, confusion, and students’ conceptions of them (read — the way they have been conditioned to find them humiliating and scary). There is an active and ingenious community of teachers in science and math who have done interesting work on this — I know it’s removed from your field but I find the similarities striking. If you’re interested, take a look at these posts on How to Teach Effective Failures, Embracing Confusion, and Failure is Not Optional.

    You might also enjoy the work of Carol Dweck, whose research on the negative effects of praising people for being “smart” is eye-opening.

    It’s always a pleasure to get some perspective from a teacher in another discipline. Good luck, hope you’ll keep us “posted.”

  129. I agree wholeheartedly; success is earned through hard work and part of the work is getting it wrong. For these exact reasons I find grades in school counterproductive. I’m a creative writing student and getting a grade for creativity is only limiting- same for analysis. Letter grades make people afraid to “get a bad grade” but at the same time it makes people afraid to get a good one. What’s the point of divergent thought if we’re all trying to fit ourselves in a box so we can get a good grade.

  130. Right on! This is a central aspect of class differences in school performance. Higher SES kids are never allowed to think they can’t learn something, while lower SES kids are *taught* that they can’t learn, in myriad ways.

  131. That is one AWESOME post. Thank you for sharing! I definitely agree, students are basically punished for getting it wrong, and only rewarded when they get it right, but it is human nature to learn from failure, and that’s simply not promoted in the educational system. I actually wrote a post about education if you care to check it out. Again, thank you for sharing! Cheers.

  132. This was…very inspirational!
    A bit long but very worth it to read (:

    I agree. If you believe you can’t do it then you won’t be able to do it. It’s being able to GRIT and getting over that bump to tell yourself, “You can do it.” 😉

    And I just really love this: “they were the ones with exceptional character strengths, like optimism and persistence and social intelligence. They were the ones who were able to recover from a bad grade and resolve to do better next time; to bounce back from a fight with their parents; to resist the urge to go out to the movies and stay home and study instead…”

    I’m having trouble with prioritizing what I want to do and what I should do and that really messes me up especially when I’m in Gr12. And that’s why when I’m playing my favorite sport for hours, it shows I haven’t done any work up to the test! It shows that I’ve done my work half-assed and half-assed studied. But I have managed to slowly prioritize school than go out and have fun because I know how important this year’ll be (: So it’s a good start?

    You’re an English teacher!?
    I currently have Gr12 English so maybe you can help me! xD
    Any advice on how to get by the course? (:
    (Eg: Memorize everything, read books, how to study English, etc?)

  133. An interesting post. I’m a teacher in Australia and although we don’t have the Middle/College distinction quite like the US, we still have junior and senior years, and there’s a big and sudden jump in expectations from one to the other. Most students stay in the same school till they finish Y12 but even so, you still get students excelling in the lower grades then failing in their Year 12 certificates.

    The article on KIPP schools was particularly fascinating and inspiring. This is exactly what I’ve been trying to express in words for years! It doesn’t help that education systems around the world are suffering under the subject hierarchy. Sir Ken Robinson talks more about this, especially in his schools killing creativity lecture (TED 2006)

    Thanks for sharing your experience. I’m sure there’s a lot more teachers out there who are feeling exactly the same way. I know I’m one of them.

  134. Thanks for posting this. I’m a college writing tutor and I completely understand. A lot of students are just so afraid to make a mistake that sometimes it will turn their tutorials into string of “Is this ok? Is this ok?” These students are also frequently overciters. They are terrified of being accused of plagiarism, so they cite every single sentence. Every sentence is paraphrased or quoted material. I’ve found trying getting them to put down some original thought, some interpretation of the material they’ve referenced, improves their confidence. At first they may be unwilling, saying “What do I know about this subject? I’m just a student.” But they do know something. They’ve taken classes; they’ve done research. A big part of graduating with a degree is that transition from viewing oneself a student with much to learn to viewing oneself as proficient in a particular field.

  135. I just want to thank you all one more time for your contributions to this discussion. I wish I had time to respond to all 200+ comments! I hope you’ll keep coming back to respond to other posts, where I may be able to interact with you more attentively. Thanks so much for reading and for commenting so thoughtfully.

  136. We learn from our mistakes, not from success. So making mistakes help us to be better next time; but it’s too bad that some parents still think that their children should excel at any time…
    (I’m one of the victims)
    This is a very inspirational post 🙂

    • “We learn from our mistakes, not from success.”
      Surely failure teaches lessons. But I think success also does. There is whole market based upon revealing the success formula of successful people!

      I guess we need to develop ways to learn from both and use them together to achieve our goals.

  137. Lately, I’ve been thinking about students who don’t seem to know how to succeed and comparing them to the students who are successful in most of their many endeavors. I think you’re on to something. I think that many of the unsuccessful students have never learned persistence. Obviously, there are other reasons that students fail, but I’d like for people interested in education to have a serious discussion about raising persistent students.

  138. Great post! I see this same problem in my classes, and I’ve said something similar to my students. The measure of success is thwarted, and it leads many to just shut down. If they could only get past that fear and do something, they’d realize they know more than they think they do. Success isn’t the A at the end of the semester — it’s the actual process of learning something they didn’t know before.

  139. I have just gone back to education after many years, I was forced out of school and for the rest of my life I thought that something was missing from my life, I went back to education and have now started a M.A in Radio Production at Goldsmiths College, London. I do not have a degree, but was accepted because of my life experience, I have no idea what the hell I’m doing but I will not stop. I have been given back that chance to set things right again in my life. This is a fantastic post I will put this post to practice and do the very best I can, I will not fail.

  140. The other day I was doing one of the so feared practice tests for the LSAT. I started to panic. I was not going fast enough, and the questions had stopped making sense. I literally fell apart. I was upset, and more than anything, disappointed with myself.

    But later that day, I was able to gather myself. I did the same practice test without worrying about the time. I simply tried to go through each question and find the best answer. By the time I was done, not only had I finished my sections within the time limits, but I had also done better than expected. I realized then how easy I can sabotage myself without much effort.

    This was a different situation than the one you wrote about, but I couldn’t help to relate. We truly are our own worst enemies.


  141. Being a student myself, I can totally relate to how yours feel. xD
    Sometimes it’s as though all of the preparation leading up to a graded assignment just escapes me when that experience is most necessary. I’ve been told a couple tricks here and there, and I’ve come up with a few of my own to keep myself relaxed.
    I guess failure is so frightening that I sometimes forget that it could also help make things better.

  142. That is almost exactly what the admissions person from Cambridge who came to my school said. He talked about how the interviews are more important for them, as they see your character, if only a glimpse of it.

  143. “We need to spend less time talking about literary techniques and more time talking about grit.”

    The best teachers know this. Writing class should be for penmanship. Story telling or analysis of events or philosophy is what you are teaching them. The greatest problem with most writing classes is that you are teaching them to copy this or that style that was developed by somebody else. What you want to do is help them find their voice. And to find one’s voice, you have to feel free to speak your truth without edit.

    Teach on teacher, teach on 🙂

  144. Thanks for sharing. It’s great to hear from the other perspective and the struggles you guys go through to teach writing. I do believe failing is a success though. Without failing, how else will a person know that if he or she is not good at something and what exactly to improve on.

  145. Thanks for sharing this. It’s really hard sometimes to accept the fact that you need to let failure be an option. I remember when I was in school, I felt an increadible amount of pressure to be “perfect.” It became so much I was afraid to try anything I knew I wouldn’t be imediately successful in. Even now, it sometimes becomes a problem.

    So, thank you for sharing this. It’s really helpful.

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