Teaching Students How To Value Failure

How do you teach a student that a certain amount of failure is an essential part of their education? How do you convince a student that s/he will be a better human being by having experienced failure? How do you explain to students that the closing of one door often leads to the opening of another?

Especially in today’s success-driven society, these are questions that I struggle with as a teacher. Most students are under such intense pressure to succeed from parents, peers, and themselves that it is almost impossible to convince them that there is virtue in a certain amount of failure. And yet, we have to find a way to do this. The fact that we as a society have such difficulties dealing with failure means that it is even more challenging for students to learn from their mistakes or failures. Instead of analyzing and assessing the nature of their failure in order to learn something from these moments, many of today’s students simply refuse to consider the reasons for their shortcomings. Of course, this is through little fault of their own. As adults, we do not take the time to teach the skills necessary to handle failure. To be sure, these skills are difficult to teach, but they should be part of every classroom and every curriculum.

I was reminded of this a couple of weeks ago when I heard a story on NPR about the differences between teaching the concept of struggle in American and Japanese schools. To be sure, the Japanese school system has challenges of its own, but it was interesting to hear how much emphasis Japanese teachers place on teaching the value of struggle. In the Japanese context, struggle does not necessarily have the same negative connotation that it does in an American classroom where a struggling student often feels as if s/he is not smart enough, does not work hard enough, etc. In Japan, students are taught that engaging in struggle means that they are on their way to improvement, which is very different from how most Americans view this concept.

There is no doubt that there is a difference between teaching students to value struggle and teaching them to handle failure in a more positive manner, but I still think that there is some correlation here. As teachers, we must continue to find ways to educate our students about the value of struggle, mistakes, and failure. Whether that is through constructive test corrections, revision upon revision of an essay, or in any other form is of less importance. The important thing is that we make a conscious effort to teach these skills. If we manage to do so, our students will not only be more successful in the classroom, but better citizens as well.

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