Second Place Winner
Teaching Failure as the Key to Success
Ask any high schooler about their relationship with failure and chances are they’ll respond, “I do my best
to avoid it.” This aversion to failure is unsurprising; after all, the competitive culture of high school
portrays failure as the antithesis of success, and to fail means to be inadequate, unintelligent, and
unimportant. There is no mercy for failure in the harsh hierarchies of grades and standardized test
scores, where one letter represents a fixed level of either intelligence or incompetence instead of a
dynamic journey of learning and growth. Students are barraged with reminders that colleges don’t want
to see failure; they want to see success, success, success.
But if we think about the ways in which this culture manifests itself—a classroom full of silent students
avoiding a teacher’s question; an uninspired schedule packed with dreary, “easy” classes; a lackluster
project without risks or innovation—it’s clear to see that the fear of failure harms students more than
failure itself. This fear crushes curiosity, prevents students from pursuing their interests or taking risks,
and undermines long-term development. Thus, to truly prepare high schoolers for the future, schools
need to teach them to embrace failure rather than to avoid failure. Failure must be incorporated into the
curriculum and students must be exposed to positive examples of failure and improvement. After all,
failure and success are not binary opposites; success is a process, and failure is a necessary part of that
process. Only by learning through failure can high schoolers be prepared to face future challenges and
achieve great success.
John Dewey, the celebrated American educational reformer, once said, "Failure is instructive. The person
who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes" (Dewey). Failure, when
addressed effectively, offers an opportunity for reflection and growth. We identify our mistakes and
understand why we made those mistakes, then use those lessons to reevaluate our thinking and find
more efficient strategies leading to success. It encourages us to be flexible and adaptive: when our first
plan fails, we immediately fire back with another one. The more we fail, the more grit we have to push
past future setbacks. Our failures become battle scars, reminding us of the difficulties we’ve conquered
and inspiring us to move forward. Failure is more than an outcome; it is a dynamic process that teaches
students how to learn.
Moreover, high schoolers need exposure to failure for the simple reason that they will inevitably come
across it in the future. Just look at the statistics: in business, 90% of startup companies fail (Patel). In the
pharmaceutical industry, over 80% of drugs do not pass clinical testing (DiMasi et al.). In major league
baseball, even the best batters miss the ball over 65% of the time ("MLB Player Batting Stats - 2018”).
Failure is a dominant force, no matter the profession. If high schoolers learn to tackle failure in school,
they'll be better prepared for the future.
Of course, how exactly can schools incorporate failure into the curriculum? After all, failure is an organic
development, not a homework assignment; integrating failure into a school-wide curriculum would
require a radical reform of our educational system. Likewise, how can teachers assess failure? For it to
be beneficial, teachers can’t merely reward students who make mistakes or take risks; instead, they need
to ensure that students are actively learning and growing from these failures. With all these requirements
in mind, it may seem like teaching failure is impossible. Individual teachers and schools across the nation,
though, have already taken the first steps to promote the power of failure in their classrooms.
Take Edward Burger, a mathematics professor at Williams College. In order to foster a spirit of failure and
critical reflection in his class, he introduced what he calls a “quality of failure” grade (Burger). In essence,
students must regularly fail throughout the semester in order to earn an A in the class. As a result, they
gleefully take more risks and energetically engage in class discussions. “Quality of failure” grades not
only incentivize students to take bold risks and step out of their comfort zones, but they also normalize
failure as a fundamental part of learning and dispel any preconceived notions that students might have
about failure. In this environment, students who make mistakes are not seen as unintelligent; rather,
they provide an important learning opportunity and are seen as an essential part of the lesson. For
example, if a student says an incorrect answer during class, his or her “quality of failure” grade
improves. The entire class subsequently discusses why that statement was wrong, what deeper
misunderstanding that mistake might stem from, and what lesson or insight that mistake offers.
Everyone has to actively listen and reflect on the failure, and the original student understands that his or
her mistaken comment was crucial in moving the lesson forward.
Talking openly about failure during class can also help students learn to embrace it. When Anne Sobel, a
lecturer at Northwestern University, led post-production discussions for her film students, she found that
students were excited to show off their errors and offer valuable learning moments in a receptive
atmosphere. Students discussed what they would do differently next time and took away new knowledge
from inspiring problem-solving stories. Not only that, they were encouraged by the grit and dedication
their peers had shown (Sobel). Likewise, a study published by the Harvard Business School found that
discussing failure increases levels of so-called “benign envy” in listeners, which motivates them to work
harder and improve themselves (Huang et al.). Thus, the more we discuss failure in schools, the more
students will understand how to grow from it.
Another approach, promoted by John Merrow of Stanford University, involves “problem-based learning.”
Unlike traditional project-based learning, which emphasizes the use of critical analysis to reach
predetermined conclusions, “problem-based learning” projects have no definite answers, just real,
engaging challenges (Merrow). Here, the heart of learning resides in the frequent failures and genuine
discoveries that accompany real problem-solving. Not only that, by exploring real issues in
“problembased learning” projects (Merrow lists studying air quality in the school community as an
example), students see that their failures are simply unanswered questions with significant real-world
implications. They stop viewing failure as a dead end, but as a stepping stone towards new conclusions
and new strategies. Plus, connecting failure to real world problems helps students appreciate the ubiquity
of failure in all levels of life—be it individual, local, or even international—and better prepares them to
face the problems of the future.
High school is a critical turning point, the divide between adolescence and adulthood that leads students
to the greatest academic feat of their lives—the creation of themselves. As part of this creation, high
schoolers must learn to embrace failure in order to become better learners, thinkers, and creators. After
all, our world is in constant motion; the information that is relevant today could be obsolete tomorrow.
But the lessons of failure—to take risks, to reflect, to adapt—are eternal. Indeed, they are the keys to
unlocking a brighter future full of success.
Burger, Edward. "Teaching to Fail." Inside Higher Ed, 21 Aug. 2012,
Accessed 27 Jan. 2019.
Dewey, John. The Later Works, 1925-1953: 1933. Southern Illinois UP, 1986.
DiMasi, Joseph A., et al. "Trends in Risks Associated with New Drug Development:
Success Rates for Investigational Drugs." PubMed, U.S. National Library of
Medicine, Mar. 2010, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20130567. Accessed 28 Jan.
Huang, Karen, et al. Mitigating Malicious Envy: Why Successful Individuals Should Reveal Their
Failures. Harvard Business School, 2018, www.hbs.edu/faculty/Publication%20Files/18-080_
Merrow, John. "Why Failure Is Crucial for a Student's Success." PBS News Hour,
NewsHour Productions, 27 May 2015, www.pbs.org/newshour/education/
failure-crucial-students-success. Accessed 28 Jan. 2019.
"MLB Player Batting Stats - 2018." ESPN, ESPN Internet Ventures, www.espn.com/
mlb/stats/batting. Accessed 28 Jan. 2019.
Patel, Neil. "90% of Startups Fail: Here's What You Need to Know About the 10%."
Forbes, Forbes Media, 16 Jan. 2015, www.forbes.com/sites/neilpatel/
#3e66aee06679. Accessed 28 Jan. 2019.
Sobel, Anne. "How Failure in the Classroom Is More Instructive than Success."
The Chronicle of Higher Education, Chronicle of Higher Education, 5 May
Accessed 28 Jan. 2019.