“A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” I share this quote by John Shedd with students each year in the hopes of building their sense of adventure and cultivating a willingness to step out of their comfort zone. I share it because so many students are crippled by their fear of failure. Recent college counseling surveys by Penn State and East Carolina University site a dramatic increase in the number of students seeking counseling for anxiety by as much as 15% in two years. Of that increase, 20% of the services are for academic anxiety and fear of failure.
A recent article, “Making Friends with Failure” highlights how this fear can be particularly hard for high-achieving students whose self-esteem is so closely linked to their classroom performance that they are unable to answer a question if they don’t know the correct answer. While this does ring true for some high-achievers, it also applies to the student who has experienced failure so many times that they feel it defines them. Often, these students are unwilling to answer for fear of adding another failure to their name. In either case, students from all academic standings suffer when they don’t know how to learn from failure and keep moving forward.
To help with this, I share stories of scientific failures that later became successes and failures that required numerous revisions and redesigns. I help them understand the power and learning that come from getting it wrong but not giving up. The word “Yet” is often spoken in my room and it holds incredible power when students believe it. I share my own failures. Some were failures that did not turn into a success and others are times of not giving up even when everyone else said I should.
I guide them and give opportunities to fail at a task, evaluate what went wrong, and try again. STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) education is a direct way to help students experience success through failure. The design process that STEAM incorporates is built around learning from failures. Students learn to pinpoint what caused them to be unsuccessful in their task so they can modify their plan and try again. The tenacity and resiliency students learn through STEAM carries over to other subjects lessening the grip that fear of failure has on them.
Coding and robotics programs also build student confidence in overcoming failure. Students in my classroom and robotics club learn quickly that programing is trial and error. You will have more failures than successes in the beginning and just because something worked today, does not mean that it won’t fail tomorrow.