Learning, When Failure Occurs

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Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

Do you remember the proverb, “If at once you don’t succeed, try, try again?” Well, as a matter of fact, it’s true.



“She is in an RN nursing program. Until now, the emphasis in her training has been on the academic part of the program. She is at the point where the setting is moving from the classroom to the clinical program in which students are exposed to work on the hospital wards. Distressed, she called home and said that she had a bad day and felt hopeless, stupid and incompetent. She doubted her ability to attain her BSN and RN, (Bachelor’s in Nursing) and RN license (Registered Nurse). The reason was that, having to demonstrate how to assess life signs, (taking pulse, listening to heart beat, respiration), she panicked and failed.”

This is a common scenario for students at all levels of learning from grade school to graduate school. All the emphasis and effort are placed on success. Success is defined on attaining perfect or near perfect grades. As a result, students feel stupid and like failures when they make mistakes along the way.

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The simple fact is that there is no way to learn and grow without failure. For example, the baseball player becomes skillful because he learns by dropping ground balls, striking out, making errors in throwing  and failing to score runs for the team. The real goal of education and training is to learn from errors through study and practice. This is true for our children when they are in school.

However, teachers and parents tend to focus on successful completion instead of the process of learning. Everyone knows about the child who shows his parents the 90% he achieved on his exam only to have them ask, “Well, why wasn’t it 100%? Everyone remembers how, when we brought home the grade of “F,” on a test, we were punished for a week by being grounded from going out to play.

*”Children may perform better in school and feel more confident about themselves if they are told that failure is a normal part of learning, rather than being pressured to succeed at all costs, according to new research published by the American Psychological Association. ‘We focused on a widespread cultural belief that equates academic success with a high level of competence and failure with intellectual inferiority,’ said Frederique Autin, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Poitiers in Poitiers, France. ‘By being obsessed with success, students are afraid to fail, so they are reluctant to take difficult steps to master new material. “By being obsessed with success, students are afraid to fail, so they are reluctant to take difficult steps to master new material. Acknowledging that difficulty is a crucial part of learning could stop a vicious circle in which difficulty creates feelings of incompetence that in turn disrupts learning.'”*(MNT, Medical News Today, 03/13/2012).

The fear of failure shows up in the classroom where students are reluctant to ask questions because they think they will be perceived as being stupid. All of this can be reversed if parents and teachers let the youngsters know that learning is difficult and, therefore, failure inevitable along the path to way to mastering new material and concepts.

In addition, the fear of failure becomes so frustrating that many talented people give up and and do not pursue careers that they would othewise find very rewarding.

Go back to your childhood and look at your learning experiences in the present. Didn’t you fail? I remember falling of the bicycle many times before I learned to ride. Do we ground our children for falling off that bicycle when they are learning? How would you feel if that happened to you?

If you didn’t succeed, were you encouraged to try, try again?

Your comments and questions are encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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