An Ode to Failing Forward

I’m not sure who originally coined the phrase “failing forward,” but it has8065324319_6efdc37cfa been in use, in many incarnations, by all manner of great pioneers. John C. Maxwell wrote about it. So did Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Marie Curie, Frank Lloyd Wright, Michael Jordan, Steve Jobs, and Elon Musk. There are so many successful people who describe the art of learning through failure, you would think that this would be the cornerstone of education. So why is this concept so difficult to grasp as educators? Recent research By Carol Dweck has brought failing as learning back into the limelight, but I still see so few educators truly embracing this as a core tenet of what they do in the classroom.

I remember just a few years ago, as our daughter was breezing through the third grade, that the power of failing forward became much clearer to me. My daughter was great at school. She liked praise, and liked having things done. She turned in her work, and as a result, she had a lot of success. Then came multiplication drills. These one-minute tests were administered daily in succession. First were calculation drills for the multiples of one, then of two, then of three and so on. Daughter was plowing through them. She came home every day and reported to us which one she had conquored that day, and we praised her on her brilliance. Fives went by with a chuckle. Sixes were conquered just days later. Sevens persisted only a few days more. Then she got to the eights. The eights changed everything. She got stuck. a week passed and she had yet to get past them.

Then two weeks passed. Tears began to accompany the daily report of her battle with the crazy eights. It was taking its toll.


We encouraged her:

You’ll get them tomorrow, honey,” said we.

“I just can’t. I can’t get them,” said she.

My wife and I began discussing a parental intervention. This was, as I explained, everything that is wrong with this “drill-and-kill” educational system, and my wife offered to go in and speak with the teacher to help her understand the toll the eights were having on our daughter. Something needed to be done. However, we decided to give it one or two more days, just for good measure.

Then it happened. We knew it the moment we saw her step off the bus. She was walking at least two inches taller than the previous day. She positively beamed. She sprinted home with a paper clutched in her hand. She screamed from the moment she hit the door: “I got it! I got it! I got it!” She spoke for half an hour about how great it felt to finally finish off the eights. Her teacher had given her a hug. Her classmates cheered. She cried tears of joy. She said it was one of the proudest moments of her life!

And were were going to try to take it from her. Had we intervened, she would never have known the exhilaration of accomplishing something REALLY hard. Her confidence renewed, she breezed through the nines, tens, elevens, and twelves in a week. She found out that getting stuck was part of the challenge and she hasn’t forgotten it. Neither have I. I make no claims to suggest that minute drills are good for learning math, but they were good for her. Not because of what she learned about math, but what she learned about failing and suceeding.

She is in seventh grade as I write this, in an accelerated math class, and I still hear her say things like, “this is SO hard. It’s going to take me forever to get it.” That doesn’t sound too positive, but think carefully about the message there. No mention of quitting. No mention of defeat. Just a statement of difficulty.

The eights taught me a lot about success and failure, and it made me think a lot about how I structured learning activities in my own classroom.

…to be continued…


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