Failure as a Learning Mode
Cody Bernard, Jill Heaton, Julie Rigling

Failure is a harsh word in any context: at school, at work, at home. People are uncomfortable with failure and try to avoid it at all costs.  Failure is not seen as a learning mode, but instead as a major problem.  

However, Carol Dweck’s growth mindset proposes a more positive view of failure.  In an article in Education Week, Dweck states that people “who believed their intelligence could be developed (a growth mindset) outperformed those who believed their intelligence was (fixed)” (Dweck, 2015).  Educators want students to develop growth mindsets and to persevere through any challenge they encounter. Students need experience with failure to develop the patience, hard, work, and resilience necessary to persevere (Hochheiser, 2014).  However, as Hochheiser says, “it’s actually the students coasting through our classes, schools, and assessments who don’t understand what it is to work through adversity and need to be coached in resilience” (2015).  Educators want all students to reach their highest potential and develop growth mindsets, but current institutional practices make this a messy, wicked problem.  

Learning is all about risk, but learning institutions are anything but risk tolerant (N.M.C., 2013). In the Anti-Education Era, James Paul Gee describes how institutions lower the cognitive load for employees by having rules, procedures, conventions, and structures of authority that govern how a group will accomplish a purpose (Gee, 2013, p. 87). Unfortunately, this can leave institutions frozen in standardized thought, as they continue to use solutions that no longer work (Gee, 2013, p. 87-89). We justify freezes due to tradition and the lack of resources to facilitate these changes. But with newly available technology, it is time to unfreeze thoughts about failure and bring growth mindsets in schools.

We propose this three-pronged solution to help schools unfreeze institutional thought about failure and help students develop a growth mindset in response to failure through an effective use of technology according to the TPACK model (Koehler, n.d.).

Teaching Self-Reflection Skills through Immediate Feedback

Schools can help learners develop growth mindsets through self-assessment.  Learning is most effective when people monitor feedback about their progress while practicing (Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., & Cocking, R.R., 2000).  When students learn how to reflect on their progress and respond appropriately, their academic achievement improves (Nicol, 2006).  Students develop growth mindset skills like metacognition and persistence when teachers make reflective goal-setting and revision a normal part of the learning process.  Failing at a task becomes a chance to reflect and try again.  Some students may complete this self-reflection cycle multiple times before achieving mastery.   Self-reflection thus uses failure to move learning forward, especially when reflection is immediate, organized, and responded to by others.  Technology allows self-reflection to be seamlessly integrated into the classroom.  Depending on the desired pedagogy and content being discussed, teachers could ask students to answer reflective questions in Google Forms to log their progress, create blogs or online portfolios to share their reflections with a wider audience, or use comments in their Google Docs to self-reflect or to request specific kinds of feedback from the teacher.  

In this process, it is vital that students receive immediate feedback. Immediate feedback individualizes learning, boosts confidence, and provides performance data to students quickly enough to influence meaningful learning (Culatta, 2013). Technology allows teachers to provide timely feedback.  For example, Socrative is a tool that lets educators give interactive quizzes, pose quick questions, or challenge students to timed questions. Educators can watch the results in real-time while students receive immediate feedback on their answers. By combining immediate feedback with reflective self-assessment, students are more likely to learn from their failures and develop growth mindsets.

Using Problem-Based Learning

Problem-based learning (PBL) is one way in which students can encounter positive failure and practice self-reflective skills with the support of a collaborative group providing immediate feedback.  PBL helps “students to become active learners because it situates learning in real-world problems and makes students responsible for their learning” (Hmelo-Silver, 2004, p. 236).  In PBL, a group of students sets out to solve a real-world problem.  The group comes up with ideas about their preconceptions about the topic, sets learning goals, and then “plans their learning and selects appropriate learning strategies” (Hmelo-Silver, 2004, p. 240-241) to move forward.  As they tackle the problem, students find that they have to learn subject-area content, often by researching online.  At the end, students can publish their work online to share with a wider audience.  In this way, technology enables a student-centered pedagogy that covers the same content in a way that embraces failure.

PBL powerfully combines self-reflection with collaborative affinity spaces.  As Gee says, “affinity spaces, at their best, are key examples of synchronized intelligence” (Gee, 2013, 174).  As students collaborate in PBL, they discover how “the sum is more than its parts; the collective is smarter than the smartest person in it” (Gee, 2013, 174).  Additionally, PBL “affects learning outcomes and intrinsic motivation” (Hmelo-Silver, 2004, p. 257).  Teachers and peers play a key role in providing immediate feedback, encouraging persistence through failures, and developing intrinsic motivation.  Another advantage is that “classroom contexts which reward students for deep understanding, independent thought, and action are also more motivating than many traditional classroom structures that reward comparative performances” (Hmelo-Silver, 2004, p. 241).  PBL can help schools move away from a frozen institutional emphasis on competitive standardized tests and grades.

Changing Grading Policies

Perhaps the most difficult part of this solution is getting institutions to rethink the meaning of grades. This strikes at the heart of deeply-held frozen belief in schools, but is essential to helping students develop growth mindsets.  If an institution values self-reflection, immediate feedback, PBL and wants students to experience positive failure, they have to shift the paradigm so students no longer see failing grades as something they’re stuck with and then quickly forget.  Failing grades demotivate students, but when students have opportunities to remediate and demonstrate mastery, and are expected to do so, they show gains in learning and growth-mindset traits (Gusky, 2000).  Not only should schools consider grades to be fluid, but they should also reconsider what and how they grade.  Many studies show that standards based grading (Clymer, 2006) and alternate assessments (Gusky, 2003) lead to gains in student learning.  Schools must consider how they can move away from traditional paper-and-pencil tests toward assessments that better match the pedagogy being used to teach the content.  

Technology can help bridge the gap for schools that are not entirely ready to make the shift.  For example, electronic gradebooks can be set up to provide flexibility for teachers in the same school using different grading systems.  Additionally, the Immediate Feedback Assessment Technique (IFAT) provides feedback to students as they take a multiple choice assessment and provides opportunities to learn during the assessment (DiBattista, 2005).  By digitizing the IFAT, teachers can help students learn from their mistakes, while not creating more work for the teacher and still working within their school’s traditional grading system.  Over time, as the growth mindset philosophy is adopted by more educators, the institution can make wide-scale shifts in grading policies.


Creating an atmosphere where failure is used as a learning mode requires change on many levels: students have to learn to self-reflect and respond to immediate feedback, teachers have to use TPACK thoughtfully to redesign classroom experiences through techniques like PBL, and schools have to make large-scale changes in the way they think about grading and assessment.  Solving a wicked problem like this requires all involved parties to unfreeze their thinking and work collaboratively to bring about change.  By adopting this solution, we can transition from viewing failure as a negative aspect of education, to seeing it as an important learning mode.


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