Failing Forward: Growth Mindset in the Classroom

Failure is an integral part of my classroom.

By: Covey Denton | Some of the best learning comes from failure.  Look at the stubbornness and tenacity that infants approach when learning to walk.  They fail repeatedly, get bruised, sometimes cry.  Do parents push them down, encourage them to stick with crawling or give up on walking?  No, we cheer them on.  Every little inch, every little step—we celebrate even the smallest victories.  When they fall, we brush them off, pick them up and let them try again.  We come alongside of them and hold their hand, encourage them to use supports to cruise around, knowing that they won’t need those supports forever.  Children look up to those around them, people who have experience walking, and strive to be just like them.  Before long, not only are they walking, but climbing and even running.

Failure is a first step in growth—as an educator it is my duty to model failing forward in the classroom.  When I attempt new technologies, incorporate a new lab or try out a new assignment, I push myself out of my comfort zone and discover what works, what doesn’t and I model how to learn from my own mistakes.  It is hard—when I try something new and it is a flop, I have failed with an audience.  In my own class, especially since the onset of COVID and online learning, I’ve been afforded many opportunities to see myself fail.  I seek to model resilience and a “If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again” mentality with my students.  I want to change their statement from “I can’t do it” to “I can’t do it YET!”

One of the most powerful tools I use in my classroom is offering a script for failure.  When technology fails or when a student points out a mistake I made on the board, I embrace it as a teaching opportunity, offering them a script they can then use when they are placed in a similar situation.  If a student points out a misspelling on the board, I might respond with:

Me: “Thank you for pointing that out.  I am having a tough time figuring out how to spell that word, could you help me out? What resources could I use to help me spell it correctly?”

Student: “Sure I can help!  It’s on the word wall!  Let me call it out to you!”

If my technology fails and I am getting frustrated I might say:

“I am getting very frustrated right now.  I can feel my heart beating and I feel angry.  I’m also sad because I wanted to do this activity and now I can’t. Have you ever felt like this?  I’m going to take a break for a second and take some deep breaths.  What else can I do to calm down?”

Our students are constantly surrounded by teachers who are continually asking them to step outside their comfort zones in front of their peers.  This can be a daunting situation and its important that we come alongside of our students and help them scaffold their learning.  In my physical classroom I have an anchor chart with sentence stems for asking for help, expressing disagreement and offering feedback. These scripts model appropriate responses and help them scaffold their learning when dealing with failure or frustration in class.  Virtually, I model positive self talk and have a “virtual poster” on the wall of my classroom displayed on my ZOOM background.

I see it as my responsibility to give kids a chance to practice failing forward frequently.  In my class I’ve chosen to actively pursue opportunities for failure using STEM Challenges and iterative design.  On a day with a STEM challenge I get the students excited.  With the biggest grin on my face I welcome them into the room/ZOOM and get them pumped up!  I have music playing, my body language is animated and I am practically shouting!  “Today is a STEM Challenge—it’s a challenge because it is hard.  You aren’t going to do it right the first time, the second time or even the third time!  If you did, it would be a STEM EASY.  It isn’t supposed to be EASY!  We’re going to be so good at failing today that you aren’t going to believe it!  We’re going to use our words, keep our cool, take deep breaths when we get frustrated.  Most importantly we’re going to learn from what doesn’t work to make something that DOES work!  Who is ready?!?! I SAID, WHO IS READY!! Yeah, you are! Let’s fail this thing!” And they do.  And they laugh when it collapses.  And they sneak peeks at others to see what is working and learn that they can learn from one another.  And they see that the “I can’t” turned into a “I couldn’t do it YET” and the towers get taller or the chains get longer and their design gets better the more they fail and learn what doesn’t work.

Henry Ford said that “Failure is the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.”

Covey Denton is a K-8 Science Specialty teacher at the Sallie B Howard School of Arts and Science.  She is a 2020 Finalist for the NC Presidential Award for Math/Science Teaching.  She holds a Masters in Education and NASA Endeavor STEM Certification from Adam’s State University and a Masters in Science in Biomedical Engineering from UNC-Chapel Hill.  She is active in the NC Science Leadership Association, the NC Science Teachers’ Association and serves on the board for the National Mid-Level Teaching Association.