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Author: Chitra Iyer
Published on:
May 1, 2022

What is Failing Forward & Why is it So Important for Effective Learning?

Parents can play a key role in helping children build the right attitude towards failures and mistakes, and harnessing them as powerful learning tools. It's called failing forward. Here’s how you can ace it!
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In this article:

What is failure and why do children fear failure?

4 Myths about failure

Failing forward: the secret ingredient of effective learners

Why children need to learn the art of failing forward

Making mistakes is actually helpful to learning, as several studies have shown. 

Unfortunately, our culture idealizes being correct all the time - making mistakes, failing, accepting that we don’t know something, asking questions, and learning from failures are neither encouraged nor seen as invaluable learning opportunities. 

But as the most successful people will tell you, none of that is true. Parents can play a key role in helping children build the right attitude towards failures and mistakes, and harnessing them as powerful learning tools.  

Here’s how.

Picture this. Your child, 15, fails an important algebra test. You’ve always known math was her ‘weak subject’. But being a loving parent, and not wanting to discourage her, you gently and kindly tell her, “it doesn't matter, you can try harder for next time”. 

You both agree she can double down on her efforts. You support her by bringing in late night snacks and staying up, offering to get her an after-school tutor and buying better books, so that she can practice more and succeed the next time. 

She practices hard, works really hard. You see her struggle and slog through hours upon unpleasant hours of algebra. You see her trying to make herself understand. You feel sorry for her, because you relate to how much she hates math. After all, so did you, in high school! 

But what’s got to be done has got to be done. You don’t know of any other way to make algebra more pleasant!!

The next test comes around. She passes, only just. Everyone heaves a sigh of relief. With everyone off her back (for now), she can go back to focusing on what she enjoys most: violin and biology, her favorite subject.

The next nightmare will roll around in 3 months: end of term exams. But no one wants to think about that right now!

Does this scenario sound familiar?

That’s because it is! This is the story of so many families around the world. Including mine! (when I was growing up, I was that girl!)

Here’s what sucks about the familiar scene I just described:

  • It reinforces the fixed mindset
  • It reinforces a ‘fear failure’ instead of a ‘friend failure’ mindset
  • It focuses on learning the content, not learning the skill
  • It focuses on the end result and not the learning process
  • It ignores the personal learning style and motivation of the learner
  • It misses the learning opportunity presented by the challenge 

What is failure and why do children fear failure?

Failing is not meeting a pre-set goal or target. Making mistakes is when things don’t go as planned due to choices we make. 

In life, failure is inevitable. We all know that. Haven’t we all failed or made mistakes? 

We have all also read the motivational posters about failure being the biggest teacher, about mistakes being the building blocks of success, and all that. 

And yet. 

Yet, we are unable to accept failure. 

We are a culture obsessed with being right, being first, being successful.

Is it any wonder then that our children live in abject fear of failure and making mistakes?

When children are young, they actually have no fear of failure. They learn to walk, fall a million times, and don't care how funny they look waddling with their jerky movements. They don't care who's watching as they experiment with table cloths, walls, sofa handles. 

Some work and others don't. Falling is a part of learning how to walk and that's about it.

If they were afraid of falling, would they have ever even tried to walk? Or would they prefer the relative ‘safety and predictability’ of crawling around forever, instead?

But soon, they learn a few ‘hard facts about life’ that make them want to avoid experiments, risk-taking, unpredictability, mistakes and failure like the plague.

  1. As you get older, the margin for error, mistake making, and failing reduces in direct proportion to the scale of your responsibilities. 
  1. As you get older, there’s no way to hide your mistakes and failures. Parents can't protect you anymore. Other people may even enjoy it when you make mistakes. Sometimes you don't get a second chance. Fewer tries means fewer mistakes. 
  1. If possible, try to not get blamed for mistakes. Even your own.

No wonder then that most of us prefer to believe these limiting myths around failure.

Also read: 15 Ways to Learn from Mistakes and use Failing as an Effective Learning Tool

The 4 Myths About Failing

Believing the 4 Myths of Mistakes is the Biggest Mistake!

It is not the failure we are avoiding of course. It is the judgment/ evaluation/ looks/ pity/ advice and even condemnation that tends to accompany failure or a mistake in our culture.

I was the same. 

I believed that mistakes and failure are the polar opposite of intelligence and success. And that turned out to be my biggest ‘mistake’!

This one mindset mistake paralyzed me for years. It stopped me from breaking out of my successful but unfulfilling, following my dreams, moving countries or taking any risks, and even getting out of bad relationships - after all isn't a known devil better than an unknown one? 

Till this one simple mind-shift that changed the way I looked at mistakes and failure.

Failure and Success are Not Binary. 

They are part of each other. Without one, you can’t have the other. 
It’s not either this or that: you will encounter both on the path to your goals.

But that wasn’t the end of it. 

This next realization finally put failure in perspective for me. 

Failing Forward: the Secret Ingredient of Effective Learners

With the concept of failing forward, I was finally able to make the connection between failure, learning and growth. 

To understand the truth about failing is to understand the truth about learning. 

Learning is messy, it's not linear. It's not binary. It is complex, messy, interconnected. Sometimes it's easy and sometimes it's hard, and some attempts fail and some attempts succeed. But most importantly, it's never done. It's a cycle that helps us make constant improvement.

This one mindshift finally empowered me, as a parent, as a professional, as an individual to lose my fear of failure. My aversion to making mistakes.

I finally stopped hiding behind my curtain of 'I don’t like making mistakes because I have such impossibly high standards’, to ‘I have no ill-will towards failing, it's just one aspect of my learning cycle’. 

Looking at failing or making mistakes in isolation is damaging. 

Once I located failure as just another cog in my learning cycle, it was fine. 

I lost my fear of failing. And it transformed my ability to learn!

Why Children Need to Learn the Art of Failing Forward 

The important value of making mistakes and failing in the context of learning and growth cannot be overstated.

In case you need reminding, here are 5 reasons why failure matters:

  1. Failure is inevitable in life: the sooner we are able to deal with it constructively, the better

  2. Each mistake and failure adds to our bag of experiences and makes us smarter and better prepared for the next try

  3. Brain science says that failures help our brain grow, helps connect neurons and make better informed decisions

  4. Failure is not a wall, it's a speedbump. A reminder to pause, re-evaluate and reassess our approach; and reset or tweak goals, strategies and execution as needed. So failure actually smooths our path to success.

  5. Failure and mistakes help us develop our analytical and reflection skills

Michael Jordan, the legendary sportsperson, said it best.

"I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game winning shot, and I missed. I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed."

Get a PDF version of the 4 Myths About Failure Infographic by clicking on the icon below.

Also read:

Our curated resources on failing forward

How to Make a Growth Mindset Your Child's Default Learning Mindset

How to Help Our Kids Embrace- not Fear- Math

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