Set Students Up For Failure?

I’m fascinated by our opportunity to teach our students about failure, its impact, and their ability to overcome their own failures. I know I would have benefited from this instruction as a high school student, so it’s often on my mind as I work through each week on campus.

I’m always looking for something that can help facilitate that conversation about failure well, and it was in pursuit of some new inspiration that I stumbled up on this video recently by a few graduate students at Harvard. I was fascinated by it. It’s pushed me to reconsider a number of assumptions I made (or wonder if I made), and in the best way possible, it’s left me with a few ideas I can’t shake.

There’s a lot there in this video, but more than anything, I’m stuck replaying this line from professor Heather Hill. When talking about the role that risk and failure play in our learning, she comments that, “Teachers who are crafty start to design instruction that kind of responds to that [the impending stumble] ahead of time and highlights it and brings it up, so that kids will make that mistake; it’s called provoking the stumble.”


That phrase, “provoking the stumble,” I love that.

But here’s where I’m stuck: how do we balance the idea of provoking stumbles with the idea of individualizing to help students be successful? Outside of a “you have to know your students” answer, how do we give guidance to those teachers who do know their students well and still struggle to answer this question well?

The way I see it, if we know that students benefit from overcoming challenges, we know that grit is developed in that zone of just right stretch, how can we not begin to invest ourselves in provoking stumbles for our students?

If we’re going to go down this road (and I do think we need to start down this road–or maybe start blazing a new trail in this direction), we have to be prepared with more than a shoot from the him response to parents who, understandably, will question why we are doing this. From one vantage point over a shortened time frame, we are setting students up for failure. But given a longer view, we’re preparing students to know that they can recuperate from failure and overcome adversity.


Part of overcoming our struggles (I won’t put all this on you, but I imagine some will identify with this) my struggles is a healthy, painful realization that I can’t do everything I would like. This isn’t an exclusively academic or professional realization by any means. I wish I could run like I could when I ran cross country in high school. I wish I could stay up (to write this blog, even) late at night without feeling it the next day (or two or three). The reality is that I have limits.

New ones seem to show up each day.

I came across Phil Hansen’s TED talk around the same time I say the “What Makes Good Teaching?” short, and I think Hansen is leading me toward my answer. You see, Hansen is an artist who (spoiler alert) can’t draw a straight line.

Given the choice to simply give up on being an artist, he chooses to overcome a considerable limitation and “Embrace the Shake” so that he can continue to develop his creativity and pursue his calling as an artist. That’s all I’ll summarize; take a few minutes to take in his message here:


I need your help. How do you balance this dichotomy: helping students experience success v. helping students learn to overcome failure? I’d love to hear examples of how you balance both well. The ways that you “set your students up for failure” (which, when done in this spirit, of course, is setting them up for long term success) will help me help teachers, and they will help me think through the parallels for professional development in our school and district.

Please do share. I truly appreciate any feedback you have. Together, we can come up with some great ways to challenge and support students through failure toward success!

One Reply to “Set Students Up For Failure?”

  1. How timely is your article when this has been the primary thought in my mind as the new school year begins! I teach high school Spanish, and “failure” is my students’ greatest fear and most difficult obstacle. Thinking about this, I began the year differently than I have for 23 previous years: I began with a challenge to “Dive into Language Study,” just as a cliff jumper dives into water from great heights.

    Especially in the higher levels of Spanish, my students are driven and high-achieving, and they fear failure so much that they will avoid taking risks to avoid failing. Then we are at an impasse: I can’t help them achieve higher heights if they won’t push themselves to try.

    I don’t know if I have any profound insights, but I am working through this concept myself. Last week the Spanish 5 students gave impromptu “book talks” (children’s lit in Spanish) in front of me and their peers, and then I gave them a heart-to-heart about facing their fears and overcoming them. We looked at a slide show, “What if I fail?” on Slide Share and discussed a “growth mindset”. Today we are celebrating their plunge with an ice cream party (relates to a graphic on proficiency levels).

    In Spanish 3 I took a simpler route, but it was fun at that level. Each student progressed through a series of conversational/interpersonal activities last week and then ended the week giving a short self-presentation before the class. When everyone was done I congratulated their “cliff jumping” and everyone chose a water-transfer tattoo to wear as a sign of conquering the cliff.

    In summary (I apologize for the length), I’ve come to two early conclusions: 1. I need to teach my students that they are “free to fail”–the world will not end if they do not succeed, and they cannot grow without taking risks; 2. In my classroom I need to provide a climate in which they trust me to stretch them and in which they are comfortable taking risks and trying out their “Spanish wings”. As opposed to the “real world,” I won’t let them fail totally.

    As one of my students said last year, “Señora, you’re like a mama bird who pushes her babies off a cliff”. Astounded, I took a moment to process. Then I said, “Like that mama bird, if I push you off the cliff, I will be underneath you to keep you in the air” (or something like that).

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