Reframing Failure

Each Sunday afternoon, I roast a batch of coffee for the middle school faculty. It serves as a soothing ritual as I prepare for a new week. I’d like to think I am pretty good at multi-tasking, but this past year – particularly since welcoming a second child – I’ve burned more than a couple of batches while attending to runny noses, preparing snacks, and responding to the flood of Sunday afternoon emails.

Today, after two failed batches, I finally admitted that I needed to change my system. The solution – setting a loud timer – was simple enough. What took me so long to learn from my mistakes?

Mistakes and failures have been on my mind this month. In early January, the middle school teachers came together for the next phase of Project 2025. We spent a full morning searching for patterns in the 32 interviews we conducted. In the end – after sharing, comparing, and synthesizing — eight salient themes emerged.

One idea that rose to the surface was failure’s relationship to success.

For example, one CEO in the tech industry said that his “successes were the result of a series of events that were brutally painful – and what could be perceived as failures resulted in the formation of a successful start-up company.” Another entrepreneur talked about the grit and discipline that propelled him when his product was rejected multiple times.

A social media executive noted that employers value her capacity to “create order out of chaos” — she knows how to quickly assess and correct when a team’s efforts are out of alignment with organizational objectives — a skill she acquired by facing past mistakes with ingenuity and determination. And yet another business owner noted how vital it is for today’s students to “experience building, failing and building again” as they prepare to take on real-world challenges.

Failure. Rejection. Mistakes.

We don’t typically associate these words with success, and yet they popped up in interview after interview with industry leaders.

In a follow-up faculty meeting, we decided to explore this theme in more depth. During a vigorous discussion, we talked about how to help students view failure as part of a process, not an end in itself. When viewed through this lens, mistakes can spur invention, grit, humility, and vital self-reflection.

As teachers, we know that setbacks do not necessarily correlate with successes. Sometimes students become so frustrated or anxious when a task doesn’t go their way that they simply stop trying. Other times, students view tasks as a one-step process and resist making purposeful revisions, even in response to feedback. In these moments, failure is not serving a greater purpose.

So perhaps it’s not the failure itself that is important, but rather the risk-taking that precedes it and the resiliency that allows us to learn from it.

Risk-taking is essential to innovation. We want students to take initiative as they write, calculate, build, design, and create. And when we take risks, we will inevitably fail sometimes: We try something new, it falls flat, and we learn something from the attempt and try again. Bouncing back and learning from mistakes is a hallmark of resiliency. As James Joyce wrote, “Errors are the portals of discovery.”

The leaders we interviewed reframed their failures as essential guideposts along their journey. How can we help students reframe failure? As a faculty, we are exploring ways to help our kids learn how to self-assess and self-correct — from developing new work habits when old ones aren’t working (such as setting a timer so as not to burn the coffee!) to integrating feedback before the “final draft” is complete.

Ultimately, we want our kids to become resilient risk takers who have enough curiosity and tenacity to keep attacking problems from new angles. After all, the most compelling problems of our day have no easy answers.

In the coming weeks, I will share with you more of the themes that emerged from Project 2025 and how we plan to use these insights to positively impact what we do in our classrooms. Stay tuned!

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