Student-led, inquiry based, project based… these learning terms are big in the education world, and the pressure for students to create meaningful, big, showy products is intense. But student-led and project based learning isn’t all productive work periods and beautiful results. Sometimes, the most meaningful and memorable thing that students can do is fail. When you work really hard on something and it doesn’t turn out the way you thought it would – whether spectacularly or subtly – it’s a painful thing (especially when you’re ten years old). Somewhere in that muddle of pain, guilt, and embarrassment, there is a catalyst for growth and change; but most students need help to find it.
Over the past few years, I’ve been working to learn more about my role in student failure as the adult in the room. Do I swoop in and save them at the last minute? Act as a partner, filling the gaps where I know they can’t make it work? Stand back, sit on my hands, and leave the responsibility completely up to them? Or is it something in between?
You can probably guess what I’m going to say next: I’m still learning. I think I’ll continue learning, tweaking, and growing this particular skill, and many more like it, as long as I teach. I’m lucky enough to have amazing role models in this department: K-8 Computer Science Coordinator and all around growth mindset wizard Kim Wilkens, and Innovation Coordinator and master of reflection and flexibility Michele Mathieson. They are incredible resources for looking deeper, guiding discussion, and helping students to see their mistakes and missteps with clarity and positivity.
With their help, I’ve facilitated countless difficult conversations with student groups about setbacks and failures. These span hundreds of students from age 5 to age 14; different groups, at different skills levels working with completely different projects and topics. But after a particularly rocky conversation last week, I realized: these discussions have a lot in common. It’s easy to freeze once you realize a failure pep-talk (as I lovingly call them) is needed: How do you point out the failure without rubbing it in? How do you help them to pick up and move on, without breezing past a valuable learning opportunity? And how the heck do you deal with all of the intense feelings – especially anger that students tend to feel towards their teammates – that go along with failure?
I’ve compiled a step-by-step guide for discussing failure with students, based on my own experience. These have worked for me, with a little bit of tweaking, with groups all across my K-8 age range, with computer science projects, writing drafts of essays, a disastrous game on the playground, and everything in between. Depending on your group of students, your level of involvement with the group’s work, and your subject matter, you may need to adjust or swap these steps around – but overall, this is the recipe I follow when it’s time to roll up my sleeves and dive in after a crash-and-burn.
Step 1: “That didn’t go the way I expected it to.”
Get the big stuff out of the way first. There’s no use ignoring the elephant in the room – odds are, your students know exactly what this conversation is going to be about. Whether you’ve had a total meltdown or are just starting to head in the wrong direction, even the kid that is arguing about their perfect work probably knows deep down that something isn’t right. By coming out and setting an example of admitting failure, you’re breaking the stigma and sending the message that it’s okay to admit that things didn’t go well. When I start with a statement like this – sometimes as simple as “Wow, I made a big mistake” or “I tried and I failed today” – I can feel the students around me exhale and relax. It’s as if I’ve given them permission to admit their failures, too. I notice that when I start conversations this way, my students are much more likely to admit their own mistakes and start from a more honest and open place.
Step 2: “I’m feeling frustrated/disappointed/angry.”
I am all about normalizing those painful feelings. Many young people need practice putting their emotions into words. When you’ve invested time and effort into something and it doesn’t work, a whirlwind of emotions can take hold: anger, guilt, shame, regret. Again, I go first to model and create a safe space for students to speak. I push students to stop and name the emotions that they’re feeling, sometimes outloud to each other, and sometimes silently to themselves. In this moment, we are simply naming the emotion – “I’m feeling mad” – not the reason – “I’m feeling mad because Jerry didn’t finish his part so the whole thing fell apart.” I will gently, but firmly, stop and redirect students if they begin placing blame or going into details here. It’s simply a time to unload emotions that are burdening you, so that you can begin to make room for the hope and determination that you’ll need later.
Step 3: “I’m sorry.”
If there’s a need for an apology, I make one. Loudly, clearly, and honestly. After one of these talks, I once had a student tell me that she had never had an adult apologize to her before. She was so shocked she had to sit for a few minutes and gather herself. If we expect students to apologize to people in their lives when the situation calls for it, then we need to model that behavior. If I played a role in the group’s failure – and it’s very likely that I did! – I’ll own up and apologize.
Step 4: “Looking back, I see things that I wish I had done differently. How about you?”
As often as possible, I’ll follow this sentence with an example. When a group of middle schoolers worked all semester on a project that crumbled at the end, the room was tense. I said, “I made some mistakes this semester. I wanted you to feel supported while working independently. Looking back, I see that I stepped back too much and didn’t give you the support that you needed to be successful.” If you expect your students to share the blame for their mistakes and failures, then you need to step up and do it, too. If you were the faculty mentor or advisor, it’s likely that there was something you could have done differently. I know now that a few mistakes don’t make me a bad teacher – they make me a lifelong learner. If I come clean about my bad choices first, my students are much more likely to do the same.
Step 5: “Let’s go back and find out what went wrong.”
This step is key. Yes, things didn’t go quite right, but unless we figure out what and how it went wrong, we can’t learn from it. This might mean pinpointing a specific moment that things went off the rails, a day when work started moving in the wrong direction, or something completely different. One note: I don’t let the conversation move to this step until we’ve finished all the steps above. In my experience, students need to have time to name and experience their feelings, and to move out of their anger or defensiveness, before they will be ready to look critically at the situation and their role in it. During this step, I’ll often request that the group to reflect without mentioning specific names. Some groups need this perimeter to move their focus from one person’s mistakes to the entire group’s choices; it also keeps the conversation from turning into a blame-flinging free-for-all. If your group needs some extra structure during this critical discussion step (mine often do), a conversation protocol might help – Michele shared a protocol that requires every voice in the room to speak once before anyone can speak twice, and I use it all the time. That one expectation keeps the conversation balanced and ensures that everyone gets to share something, no matter how small.
Step 6: “That was a lot of information. Let’s take three silent minutes to think it through.”
I’m a fast reactor, but a slow processor. It’s a dangerous combination. Whenever possible, I like to give myself and my students 3-5 minutes to process the conversation before we turn our focus to the future. I’ll turn the lights down and press play on a soothing instrumental number and tell them that as long as the music is on, they need to stay silent. I also provide pencils and paper for students who want to write, doodle, or mind-map as they process. Many students groan when these quiet moments start, but almost everyone is calmer, more energized, and ready to move on afterwards.
Step 7: “How can we fix it?”
Once students have figured out what went wrong, you can move as a group into creating a plan to move forward. It might be an easy fix – “We need to find the bug in the code and fix it” – or something more complicated – “Our group needs to learn to work together if we want to make our deadline.” It’s best to have this conversation early enough that there is enough time and space for students to try again and use what they’ve learned to improve the next iteration of the process you’re examining. But sometimes that’s not possible, and you instead have to look forward and focus on what to do next time.
Step 8: “Here are some guidelines, suggestions, or examples for things you might need to turn things around.”
If you’ve been stepping back and letting your students work and guide themselves independently, this might be the time to step in and provide some more hands-on guidance. You can offer your expertise in the form of suggestions or examples, but be careful, because vulnerable students might jump at the chance to hand you the reigns completely. To offer more support but make it clear that I will not be the one doing the work, sometimes I will share a story of a past group that struggled, and how they got up and tried again. For example, “Would you like to hear a technique that worked for one of my other groups? When they were feeling stuck, they decided to try […] Do you think that might work for you?”
Step 9: “What are your next steps?”
I’m an action-items person. So I find that I work best when I have clear, doable steps mapped out (especially when I’m feeling frustrated). Many of my students work the same way. Stepping back and telling the group to fix it might inspire some workers, but many will probably need extra help getting over the hump of failure and picking up speed again. Help students map out two or three concrete, achievable steps that they can start on right away. Steps like, “I will revise paragraph two” or “We will meet tomorrow morning during advisory to finish the questions.” Everybody feels better when they have a to-do list, and get to check something off.
Before my group leaves, I’ll also do my best help them choose a firm end date that feels possible and fair. Along with that date comes a group decision of what happens if the work isn’t done by that deadline. Will we extend? Will it impact the grade? Will we cancel the event? Giving the group the power to decide this together means that they’re working under their own demands for their own deadline. It empowers them to know that they’ve created the perimeters, and means that if things don’t go according to plan, there’s no one else for them to blame.
Step 10: “I want to be your partner. Let’s do this. What can I do to help?”
Many of my conversations around failure and mistakes have slipped into the dreaded us vs. them mentality. Students don’t want to think about how disappointed and angry they are with themselves, so instead, they decide to focus those feelings on their teacher(s). “You didn’t help us enough! You never wanted this to work anyway! You ruined the whole thing!” This point in the conversation is the perfect time to re-establish yourself as a partner and member of the group. Remind students that you’re on their side and want them to succeed, while also making it clear that their success is in their hands, not yours. This works best for me when I make myself available for help, but only step in when I’m asked to do something specific. If a student comes to me and says, “We don’t know what to do next“, I try to guide them to find the next step themselves: “What have you tried so far? Take a look at your plan: What’s the next step? What’s your end goal, and what’s in the way of you getting there?” Once they’re rolling, I can offer myself up again as a partner and supporter.
In the best case scenario, you can catch your group with this conversation before the end of the project, unit, or activity, and this talk becomes just a step in the journey. If you can sense something going amiss in your group, here are some suggestions from Kim to get things back on track so you can avoid the disaster in the first place:
- Begin each class with a 5 minute check in – What are you working on today? What is your goal by the end of the day? What’s standing in your way?
- End each class with a 5 minute reflection – What did you accomplish? What went well, and what was frustrating? What will you do next time?
- Keep track of daily goals and reflections online (Kim suggests a Padlet for each student) so that participants have a record of their work
- Set smaller deadlines with multiple opportunities for check-ins along the way
- Make the goals and rubric of the class/activity clear from the first day
- Model and reinforce your classroom culture of risk-taking and perseverance
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