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Failure, is it really all that bad?

It’s part of everyday life and its unavoidable. No matter how good you’re at a task, you have a very high chance of failing at it at least once. But can we learn from those mistakes and use them to be better at things?

We all make mistakes and failing at things is something everyone can relate to. Failure, however, doesn’t have to be a negative. In fact, it’s the way we use that failure in order to improve and learn. Researchers, publishing in the Journal of Behavioural Decision Making, have started to examine the different ways in which people respond to failure for the better.

The Research

Failure has been studied across many fields, mainly in psychology and organisational behaviour, however they all come to the same conclusion. Failure is only seen to be dysfunctional. Some students for example will commonly perceive failure to be something they need to avoid. Rather than seeking for feedback to benefit their learning, students will disengage and abandon a task at hand for the fear of failing again.

Research has now shown that failure, whilst challenging, can be really useful when trying to avoid the same mistakes in the future. From young ages, children have the ability to develop both good and bad responses to failure that will affect the way overcome hurdles in the future. Research has shown that students who have the ability to reflect on previous mistakes, have a greater chance of success.

Responding to Adversity

When people fail, a variety of different thoughts follow. Some are helpful, some are unhelpful. In education, teachers would like to see their students respond to failure by thinking about self-improvement and how they could be a better learner. These ideas are closely linked to Metacognition.

However, this doesn’t happen in everyday life. Students in particular are often seen to be motivated by self-protection. This means, that instead of trying to improve, the motivation is to protects one’s ego rather than that receive negative feedback. Thoughts are geared towards regulating a negative mood or playing down the significance of the mistake.

Opportunity Over Set-Backs

As we can see from above, our thoughts immediately after failure can often cause us to avoid engaging in any sort of reflection. Leading to nothing but a dented ego and an increased likelihood of making that same mistake again.

Research has now suggested that a great way to respond to failure is by using your emotions. When people fail, an unavoidable and unpleasant feeling directly follows. This natural feeling is thought to have a more powerful ability to motivate change. When we make a mistake, this emotional response is then registered and remembered. This neural tag then guides future behaviour.

Whilst teaching students, teachers should help learners to focus on their emotions rather than their self-protecting thoughts. This would promote an environment where students need to increase their effort in order to learn from their mistakes, rather than trying to avoid them.

The Takeaway

We all want the students we work with to be successful; however, it would be foolish to think that they will never fail. We don’t want students to fail more, but if (and when) some of them do fail, we want them to fail better. Helping them fail better isn’t negative; if anything, it may be one of the most positive skills we could teach them. For more ideas, our blog on 6 ways that failure can help has some great tips on how to achieve this in the classroom.