Embracing Failure in the Classroom Setting

Until you make a mistake, you won’t know it’s a mistake.  

It was my first year teaching Science. I had covered everything my 4th graders could possibly need to know for the New York State 4th grade Science test, or so I thought. While grading the test, I noticed a question about states of matter, one my kids should’ve been able to answer easily. After all, I had seen them distinguish and give examples of all sorts of solids, liquids, and gasses.

Never in a million years, it had ever occurred to me that the word “state” might be a problem. You can be sure, though, the next year I explicitly taught students that “states of matter” in Science refers to whether something is solid, liquid, or gas and not the US state where it is located! Had I not made that mistake, I wouldn’t have discovered something very important about my kids and about teaching.


How do I recognize when I’ve made a mistake?

One of the easiest ways to recognize teaching mistakes is to use a tool like Swivl to record your teaching. You’ll want to allow yourself a moment as you watch your recording to deal with the less relevant questions such as “Why did I wear…?” and “Does my voice really sound like that?” Sometimes, you’ll already know you made some type of mistake (especially if a student pointed it out to you), but often you won’t realize it until you see it on video (or listen to a recording of the lesson). 

Consider using questions such as these to guide your reflection as you watch:

(Click on image to download your own copy)However, watching and identifying your mistakes isn’t enough. You have to be able to get past any “I can’t believe I did/didn’t do that” embarrassment to be able to determine how you can adjust your teaching. Reflecting on your teaching in this way allows you to hone your practice and find what works best for you and your students.


Shift your classroom culture to embrace failure.

Transforming your own thinking to the Growth Mindset (rather than the Fixed) can do wonders in promoting reflective learning in the classroom.

In a classroom where the dreaded red pen dominates, students often fear making mistakes. Their goal is to make as few as possible and hope that the mistakes they do make aren’t noticed. Consequently, they don’t try new and/or challenging tasks because they worry about being wrong. In addition to admitting your mistakes and learning from them, there are several ways you can promote this thinking in your students. 

  • Praise process rather than genius
    • For example, “You persevered so well through that task, trying 3 different strategies before finding the one that worked for you,” as opposed to, “You got the answer correct on this hard topic, you must be good at this topic” (see Carol Dweck’s video).
  • Question rather than correct
    • How did you arrive at this answer? What was your thinking in this part?  What steps did you take to solve this problem? Why did you take this step? Is there a rule we have learned that we could apply here? How do you know?
  • Analyze errors
    • In her video “My Favorite No,” Leah Acala utilizes a document camera to capture and share incorrect student answers. She guides the students through an analysis: What went well in the problem, determining where there was an error, why it was incorrect, and how to go about correcting it. (This could also be done with an interactive whiteboard, Google Drive, etc.)

As reflective practitioners, it is our job to continually learn and grow from our mistakes, teaching our students to do the same. Think about how you can put this into practice in your own classroom. How can you set up or continue a classroom culture that embraces failure?

Written by Sharon Johnsen, @EdTech_Sharon