The Value of Failure for Learning

I recently visited the historic winter estate of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford in Fort Meyers, Florida. The marvelous botanical gardens, historic buildings, the Edison Botanical Research Laboratory, and the Edison Ford Museum are amazing to explore.

As I toured the museum, awed by the myriad of projects Edison created, what impressed me the most was the number of his inventions that started out as ideas and deemed as failures. However, with later modifications, these devices became indispensible innovations for the world.

This concept that failure is a stepping stone towards success is the focus of an engaging TED Talks video called “The Power of Believing that You Can Improve,” by Carol Dweck. (Find it on YouTube.)

Based on her mindset research, Dr. Dweck found that the most common responses to a challenge are for people to:

  • Accept and embrace the challenge and look forward to learning.
  • Run from the challenge and fear failure by shutting down.
  • Look for someone who did worse than they did, so they don’t feel badly about themselves.

She discussed that by having an open mindset, you accept and embrace the challenge of learning something new or rigorous. You understand that with learning comes setbacks, and the next step towards success is learning from your mistakes. The setbacks or failures are by no means the end of the learning process—they are actually the beginning. By giving yourself permission to make mistakes and experience failures, and then challenging yourself to take action comes the knowledge of “what it is not” and pushes you to keep trying to figure out “what it actually is or can be.”

Dr. Dweck suggests that many run from the challenge because of the fear of failure. Fear leads to shutting-down behaviors. Giving up easily and not being willing to try something new reflects a closed mindset that does not see the possibilities or opportunities to expand “what they know it to be or what it can become.” In groups where embracing failures is not the norm, cheating to avoid mistakes becomes frequent. Those who consider themselves failures look to see who else failed, and then they become encouraged knowing that others’ mistakes were far worse than their own. Cheating and comparing oneself to others takes away the focus on learning.

Thomas Edison saw his setbacks as steps in the inventing process. He explored many options for his next steps and took advantage of each of them. When an option was not readily available, such as a shortage of rubber for tires, he worked to find one. Edison is known for his hybridization of a goldenrod plant that could be used as the main ingredient for artificial rubber used in tires. He often worked with collaborators, such as Henry Ford, to leverage their mistakes as well!

A quote by Sir Joshua Reynolds posted in Edison’s laboratories states, “There is no expedient to which a man will not resort, to avoid the real labor of thinking.” Edison knew the challenge of inventing and working through setbacks. It could be difficult, and he acknowledged it was often disheartening. Nevertheless, he persisted, showed the benefits of an open mindset, and embraced his failures with action!

Pat Hymel hosted a TEDxBirmingham 2014 entitled “Rethinking Failure,” where he addressed helping to overcome being stuck in a cycle of failure. He called it “Finding your Beginner’s Mind.” Within that segment, he shared the story of Michael Jordan leaving a successful NBA basketball championship career to begin his career in professional baseball. According to some, he failed at baseball because he lacked the skills to become a champion in that sport. In contrast, what Dr. Hymel suggests is that Jordan had the opportunity to learn professional baseball as a beginner. He needed to learn a new set of skills, perfect those skills, and work at understanding the complexity of all the actions to be a successful baseball player.

Michael Jordan was able to learn from that humbling experience (his failures) and return to basketball with a different mindset. He viewed his sport from the eyes of a beginner and was able to fine-tune his skillset with new learning and a perspective of growth and innovation. Jordan later moved on to win four National Championships.

Students in our classrooms come to us with a variety of experiences, and hopefully, the majority of which were positive and led to learning. Unfortunately, some of their experiences may not have encouraged learning. If your students simply saw setbacks as a way to look for another option, they will continue to be successful. However, if they view setbacks as failure and run from the challenge of learning, our role as teachers is vital in turning them around to the path of learning.

Piaget, in his research on the cognitive development of children, noted that each child is on a continuum. Some children mature quickly and are able to accomplish tasks sooner than others. Some cognitive tasks that he found occurred in narrow age ranges. When children are able to accomplish a certain task, such as recognizing their mother’s facial features, he said they met a milestone. At no time did he call a child a failure if they were unable to complete a task by the time the majority of other similar-aged children could. It just meant that they were not yet in that stage and learning was still occurring.

In our classrooms, as we are guiding our students through the learning process and are asking them to accept the challenges of learning something new or complex, we need to evaluate our perspectives on failure. Do we consider where our students are on the continuum of development of that skill? Have we considered the strategies that we have used to bring them along in their path towards success? Have we found other options when the one strategy we previously selected led to failure? Have we encouraged and nurtured a growth mindset?

I invite you to visit and look through our resources about the Classroom Learning Environment to learn how to develop an open mindset for the benefit of your students. Check out the many videos and resources for some ideas that you might want to try in order to promote the growth mindset to encourage you and your students.

Have you had similar experiences? As comments to the blog this month, share with us your ideas and experiences in bringing new strategies into the science classroom and in preparing a student-centered learning environment! I hope Talley’s Take becomes a place where you and others can share your thinking about being a STEM teacher, and a place where you can comment and ask questions about what others find to be highly effective strategies for teaching in STEM content fields. I look forward to your comments!


Terry Talley, Ed.D.

STEMcoach in Action!



Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>