Failing Productively

After publishing my last post, I happened upon an article written by a college professor about students’ fear of failure, and her thoughts about how we need to help students learn to use failure productively.  (To read the full article:  Next Time, Fail Better)  The article focuses primarily on comparing how students in two different academic disciplines (computer science vs. humanities) have learned to deal with failure (or not), and how difficult it is for those who are not accustomed to experiencing failure to struggle through this experience, even describing it as “demeaning”.  In my prior role as a graduate-level business instructor I was responsible for reviewing and grading many reports and business plans, and can confirm that business students (and I worked with hundreds of them during my time at the university) very closely resemble the humanities students Professor Krebs describes.

I certainly understand (all too well!) that failure is difficult, no matter who we are or how many times we have experienced it.  But as far as I can tell, teaching kids to deal with the negative emotions that come with failure is a critical skill on the path to adulthood, as is developing related skills:  personal insight, critical thinking, resilience, perseverance, patience.  As Professor Krebs points out, those that learn how to deal with failure also “learn something they can use to get closer to success the next time.”  Failure is not something to fear, but something to use.

So, in terms of the idea of paying kids for good grades…

For some families, getting straight “A”s is the definition of success, and those kids may very well learn how to cope with failure along the way toward this goal.  But what insights are they gaining in the process — what it takes to please the teacher they have this year? And what will inspire them to be patient and persevere — financial gains?  Maybe it’s just me, but this paints a very bleak picture of the world.  As an alternative, what if we defined success in terms of interests they have explored, insights they have gained (“Turns out, I hate basket weaving!”), and effort they have invested in developing knowledge and skills?  This is a different spin on the idea of “failing productively”, with more of a long-term perspective, and I think it’s a useful one.  It may actually help us produce adults who aren’t afraid to think creatively and take risks, who care less about their public image and more about interacting with the world in a genuine way.


“The men who try to do something and fail 
are infinitely better than those 
who try to do nothing and succeed.”  ~Lloyd Jones

About Lori Dunlap

Lori Dunlap worked for almost twenty years in the corporate world, first as a management consultant to Fortune 500 companies, and then at a large research university as a program director and adjunct faculty member. In addition to homeschooling her two sons, she writes regularly about education and parenting issues. You can read her blog at, or connect with her on Facebook:

Posted on May 10, 2012, in Character Development, Common Concerns, Education, Homeschooling, Mindful Parenting, Parenting. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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