Failure Rich Environments

I shared this story about our dog May at our Family Weekend this past Saturday. Every morning when I wake up May follows me into the kitchen to watch me make breakfast. May stands below me waiting for me to “fail” and drop some crumbs on the floor for her to eat. Lucky for her I fail consistently. Our morning routine is a constant reminder to me about the importance of creating opportunities for young people to fail.

May understands failure very well.

May understands failure very well.

While the type of failure we are seeking might be different than the failure May is expecting, I believe schools need to be more intentional in creating cultures where failure is seen as part of the growth process of our students. Carol Dwek’s work on mindsets reveals how we increase anxiety in our students through expectations of success and excellence. On the other hand, in environments where students are encouraged for their effort, process, and resilience there is evidence that students are less anxious and develop mindsets around the concept of continuous growth. I mentioned on Saturday that one of the many reasons I enjoy coaching our cross country ski team is that, in the words of a mentor of mine Rob Bradlee, cross country skiing is a failure rich environment. We have so many wipeouts in our practices that our regular “failures” become commonplace and expected. We even like to say that if you are not falling you are not trying hard enough. Students improve because they are not holding back for fear of failure. The beginner skiers see our more experienced skiers practicing a move over and over, failing multiple times, until they get it right. Maintaining this culture of growth is difficult and we do not always get it right, but it is important for everyone to have the goal of creating a culture that inspires innovation, growth, and experimentation.


These same principles apply in the classroom as well. As educators we need to create safe spaces for experimentation and innovation. We have talked in the past about learning thresholds and creating mindsets in our students where they thrive in those liminal moments between confusion and understanding. We want our students to grapple with ideas while developing a tolerance for ambiguity in their lives. Achieving these goals is difficult in our nation’s assessment driven culture. Assessment often works against risk taking, comfort with failure, and experimentation. Effective and intentional planning, however, can allow space and time for students to cross thresholds of learning. Our skiers do race after all, and races are similar to assessments. They just have plenty of time to play, laugh, experiment, and grow in between those races. And races become exciting moments for them to showcase their evolving mastery.