How Should Students (and Teachers) “Celebrate” or “Encourage” Mistakes and Failures

By Bena Kallick and Allison Zmuda

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Unfortunately, in the tight economy of time and grading practices, students do not see failure as an opportunity to return to the work and improve it. Instead, they see it as a final judgment and move on to the next piece of work. “Celebrating” or “encouraging” mistakes and failures seems to be the wrong way to rectify this fixed mindset.

Let’s just assume that making mistakes and failing to do what we are trying to do is a signal for reflection and self-discovery. How can teachers encourage students do that in the most effective way?

To answer that question, we need to look at the type of work students are engaged in and then the clarity of roles for both student and teacher.

The Role of the Student

When students are faced with a messy problem, challenge, or idea, experimentation is a natural part of learning. When a learner is committed to figuring it out and is invested in the challenge — getting to the next level of a video game, figuring out how to do a 360-degree spin on a skateboard, creating a musical phrase — the learner is committed to the task because it is both difficult and joyful.

The role of the student with these tasks is to leverage the development of their Habits of Mind:

  • What questions am I asking about this project?
  • How am I persisting along the way?
  • What am I learning from this experience that might help me for future learning?
  • How can I think flexibly to reconsider my strategy/approach?

The Role of the Teacher

The role of the teacher is to provide quality feedback. Feedback is designed to give information about what a student did and didn’t do in light of a performance goal or learning target.

If the feedback is precise, timely, and nonjudgmental — even if the student is not doing as well as he or she might like — there is an inherent sticktuitiveness. Students see the results of their actions because there is an acknowledgement of success and clarity on what went wrong which creates an urge to go after it again and take another action.

Where can students receive feedback?

  • Mentor relationships (either face-to-face or virtual)
  • Peer critical friends groups
  • Teacher conferences

When we encourage students to build the habit of remaining open to continuous learning, we are getting them ready for not just the next assignment, but also for success in life!

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