The Importance of Failing Up

Humans are not great at failing. We are built for successes—and our survival in the wild was often dependent on reinforcing the drive to succeed. This drive has followed us all the way through the development of civilizations and is a key to our ingenuity and continued progress. But one side effect of this constant emphasis on succeeding and progressing is that we have developed a stigma around failing that can result, paradoxically, in a stifling of creativity and a halting of both personal and communal advancement. In this post, I want to explore the idea that “failing up” is an important part of learning, and that failing in general is often the first step in progressing toward an achievement.

The Effect of “Success”-Oriented Learning

Students are often oriented toward specific goals, and the pressure to achieve those goals can be dramatic and intense. Whether the goal is to pass a test, to enter a certain prestigious university, to retain good grades and receive honors, or to pursue a certain career, the stigma against failing can bleed over into the way that students approach learning. Students may end up storing learned information in short-term memory just to pass the next test, which they view as a success (or, at the very least, not-a-failure). However, this means that those students are less likely to retain that information and have not actually learned the lessons or skills they were intended to learn. Allowing for failure can ease the pressure on students and allow them to focus more on actually internalizing the information.

Failure as an Opportunity to Learn

More than merely internalizing information more efficiently, the acceptance or even encouragement of failure can lead to greater understanding of the skills being taught. For example, by trying their hand at a coding project and failing, students will be able to dissect the code they wrote and figure out exactly why the code did not work. This manner of learning allows for plenty of experimentation, as each failure reveals to the student different facets surrounding the lesson. Failing once, the student may figure out that a certain part of their code was incorrectly spelled. Upon correcting that and failing again, they may find another section that has misfired in a different way. This means that each failure can reveal a new step to take to solve the problem, teaching kids valuable lessons about problem-solving methods in addition to the hands-on experience they receive in the field they are studying (in this case, coding). When we over-emphasize success and stigmatize failure, we are inherently robbing our children of a plethora of opportunities to learn.

DMA and Project-Based Learning Experiences

Learning for the simple sake of learning is important and wonderful. But, in today's world, it is equally important to learn new skills with an eye toward the future. For me, and probably for you as well, introducing my children to new opportunities like those available at DMA is a way to help them expand their skill set so that they are better prepared for the job market when they become adults. This is one reason that the lesson plans at DMA are useful, since they are built around hands-on experience in the form of projects rather than textbook learning. But how does the concept of failure translate to these environments? Isn't failure even more stigmatized when kids are working toward a specific project-oriented goal? The answer is no, but let's unpack that a bit.

The ultimate goal of a learning institution like DMA is not for the kids to write a bit of code or program a short game. Rather, it is for them to learn how to do those things, and that is an important distinction. Since the goal is not necessarily the completion of the project but the transfer of knowledge, students are free to experiment, to use trial-and-error, and to fail over and over again. The point is that, through failure and careful instruction, those children will come away having learned not only what works in these fields, but why those techniques work. This is the underlying skill that is being taught: understanding the technology, how it works, and why these projects are done a certain way. Learning a specific coding language is important, but by the time these kids are in the job market, a new programming language may have arisen. What they need to know is how these languages work. Seen in this light, “failing” at a project isn't actually failing. Instead, kids “fail up” and, through their mistakes, end up with more knowledge than they started with. And that's the point.

Our Roles a Parents

The important step for us parents is to remember to praise our children for their continued efforts in the face of failure. Enroll them in project-based learning experiences that accept failure to promote learning, like DMA. Ask them what the failure teaches them about the concepts they are learning. Encourage their hard work, diligence, and analysis rather than just acknowledging a completed goal. If we don't do that, failure can just be... well, failure.
Failing up is a different matter, and it can only occur if the initial failure is used as a platform for further learning. That mentality starts with us.