Confession: I Set Students Up For Failure

So yes, this is my opening blog post for the 2015/2016 school year.  Now before you get ready to write me nasty comments, you better read the whole thing through.

My story starts sitting around a lunch table at a conference I recently attended where the conversation inevitably turns to, “What do you do on the first day of school to set your students up for success?”  I casually wipe my mouth with a napkin, swallow my last mouthful and then with a completely straight face I say….”Oh I don’t.  I try to set my students up for failure and I try to do it within the first hour they spend with me.”

There’s awkward silence.  One person is kind of half laughing (thinking I must be joking, obviously….), one person is sitting there staring at me completely gobsmacked, and the other looks like she wants to punch me.  So I smile and say…..let me explain.

It’s my absolute belief that as an education system we have failed our students in two major ways:

  1.  Learning is held to a rigorous schedule and things must be learned on time.
  2. Any mistakes you make along the way will therefore delay this schedule and therefore must come with punishment.

As teachers we are slaves to deadlines.  The report card deadline, the semester deadline, the end of the year deadline, the exam schedule deadline……you name it and somewhere in our calendars are numerous days with big red circles around them that loom in the back of our mind all year long.  The problem is that we endure the stress of these deadlines and then transfer them down to kids.  We set course outlines with dates that have very limited flexibility.  They say things like, “Algebra: Sept 16 – Sept 28” and it implies that you have 12 days to learn everything I need you to know about Algebra.  Whether this is right or wrong, it has certainly been implied.

The other cruel thing we do to children is (perhaps) unintentionally we’ve taught them mistakes are to be punished and if you fall behind there will be consequences for that.  If you have a homework mark or quizzes are worth something in your class as part of a percentage of the grade, every time a kid makes a mistake they are penalized in the form of a grade.

The problem as I see it is two fold.  We have created a generation of students who think that mistakes are to be avoided at all costs and that if you don’t get it the first time (heaven forbid) or possibly the second time, you are screwed.  There might also be a third repercussion in that they also believe if they don’t learn something by a deadline, well too bad, so sad…..we are moving on.  And so things that should have been a priority are left on the wayside because, hey!  I’ve got new things to learn now!

So what do I mean when I say I set students up for failure?  Well it works it’s way into my classroom philosophy.  I find that kinds are no longer risk takers because the fear of being wrong has become so deeply ingrained within them that no one wants to go first (except those small percentage of students who KNOW they have the right answer).  I also find they give up quickly if their first attempt goes wrong.  So I try to establish a culture in my room where risk taking is expected and that making mistakes isn’t just acceptable, it’s preferred……because to me, just as dangerous as getting it wrong are the kids who have no idea what to do if they slip up and get something wrong…, for the first time ever!

I worked with Telus Spark in Calgary last year for a year long intensive project.  My Grade 6 class partnered with them in an incredible year.  It was so full and so intense that I couldn’t blog about it last year.  I had to take it all in an digest it, and yes that took a full year.  So that’s why you will see these blog posts this year, in relation to last year.  Telus Spark is ever focused on the encouragement of creative kids who want and can take risks, especially when it comes to learning.  We talked at length about the concept of “Failing Forward”.  This notion that failure is bad is so limiting when it comes to learning.  Failing is when we do our best learning.  We take a look at our mistakes and from them spring a whole host of questions.  We learn more by making mistakes than by “getting it” instantly.

I seek to teach my students that failure is not the end of their world.  In fact, failure is the key for springing us forward in a safe learning environment.

So here’s how I set my kids up for failure…..

First I open with this Google Slides :  First Day of School

Then we quickly move into a spaghetti/marshmallow challenge where I ask them to build the tallest tower possible using only these two materials.  There is TONS of failure.  The strands break, the tower tilts and falls over……it’s great.  They work in teams and as a team they will build, rebuild, and try new ideas all the time to get the tallest possible tower.  In the end we celebrate everyone’s successes and we share strategies that worked but more importantly…..the ones that were dismal failures.  And MOST importantly….we talk about what we learned from the strategies that failed.

I start off with low risk failures.  Things that don’t impact them emotionally quite so much because I need to build within them this idea that if they suffer a failure a) it’s not a catastrophic end of the world and b) you can always choose to move forward.

Failure is a crucial part of the learning journey.  And I don’t sugar coat it with prettier words such as “not yet” and “next time”.  We call it a failure, we accept it for what it is, and we deal with it.  In fact, we celebrate failure with a self high five.

Wore two different socks to school today! Self high five.

Over filled my water bottle and flooded the floor while I wasn’t paying attention! Self high five.

Totally didn’t see that Social Studies assignment was due today!  Self high five.

They key is to develop strategies that encourage perseverance and most importantly, risk taking… kids don’t learn to fear a failure but rather to embrace it.

So yes.  On the first day of school I set my students up for failure and I do it on purpose.  If you want more ideas on challenges that will encourage heaps of failure in your classroom I encourage you to join Pinterest and then search up STEM CHALLENGES, DESIGN CHALLENGES, OR STEAM CHALLENGES.  Taking the time to teach students how to fail forward is worth your time and effort.  I promise.

Starting my year off with a potentially controversial blog post! Self high five…….(oiy).

For more on failure while we learn and other cool stuff, feel free to follow my class blog which is

This year my blog will focus a great deal more on all my learnings from Telus Spark and how I integrated that into my classroom.  If you are at all interested in design learning, maker spaces, and failing forward then welcome to my crazy ride.  I’ve had a year to work out some kinks so hopefully it’s a bit smoother this year 🙂


About Cherra-Lynne Olthof

I've been a middle school teacher for my entire career (which began in 2001). Like my students, I too am a life long learner. My goals include helping my students to achieve their goals, support them in their learning, and to encourage them to think "beyond the grade".
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