Teaching Kids It’s Okay to Fail When Learning STEM

There is a stigma in education that educators and students have to strive for perfection. Students often feel the pressure to be perfect as early as primary school, and this need to be error-free follows them throughout their education and into future careers. But, is this want for perfection realistic? No – it is not! 

We believe that the want for constant perfection in education creates an opposite effect for students. Rather than helping them reach their full potential, the fear of failure stops them from taking risks and trying new things. This article is meant for parents and educators looking to teach their students/children that it is okay to fail, especially in STEM learning.

The Stigma Around Failure in Education

Society is taught to see failure as a negative thing, especially in reference to education. The negative connotation of failing comes from test scores, class completion, and many other means of measuring student success. But, when failure shaming is taken to the extreme, it can actually have a negative effect on a student’s current and future performance in related subjects. 

In the STEM workforce, it is key that workers are willing to take risks, pivot when problems arise, and try again when their first (or fiftieth) attempt is not successful. In STEM, failure is not seen as a negative, it is seen as a learning opportunity to inform the next step or attempt. This is the mindset that needs to be brought into the home and classroom to reshape the way students see failure.

Reframing Failure in STEM Learning

Parents and educators play a key role in a child’s fundamental learning years. They have the power to shape a student’s mindset, which will inform their actions and decision-making process throughout their life. When teaching STEM subjects, there is a unique opportunity to reframe failure as a stepping stone to deeper understanding and innovative discovery. Through STEM’s natural emphasis on experimentation, problem-solving, and critical thinking, students can organically begin to reframe how they define and view failure – a skill that will serve them well throughout their personal and professional lives.

Success Stories: Innovations Born from Failure

It can be easy for students to discredit the idea that failing is okay. It does, in fact, sound counterintuitive. But, through real-world examples, students can see there have been a variety of failures that have led to innovative discoveries that impact how we live today. 

A great example of this is Sir James Dyson. In an Interesting Engineering article, it notes that it took Dyson 5,126 failed attempts before he successfully created a working vacuum. Now, Dyson is a multi-billion dollar company known throughout the world for their innovative household and beauty projects. Pose the question to your child – What would have happened if Dyson had stopped after his first failed attempt?

Practical Strategies for Educators and Parents

There are a variety of ways parents and educators can help students reframe their mindset around failure. Below is a list of practical strategies for at home or the classroom:

  • Create a supportive learning environment.
  • Encouraging students to ask questions and test their theories. 
  • Promote reflective practices during and after lessons.
  • Celebrate the learning process rather than just the results.
  • Create an environment where students can give each other feedback for improvement. 
  • Praise students for taking risks, even if they do not pay off.

Encouraging a Growth Mindset

A growth mindset is the belief that through hard work and dedication, someone’s skills and abilities can be further developed. The growth mindset is beneficial to educators because it emphasizes the importance of showing up every day ready and eager to learn. 

In the growth mindset model, students need to accept failure as part of the learning process. And, rather than allowing it to stop them, they can use it as a learning opportunity. If you are interested in learning about the growth mindset and the impact it has on education, click here to read more.

The Role of Feedback in Learning from Failure

Constructive feedback can be difficult to give and receive. It can be difficult to receive criticism at any age and can sometimes be seen as discouraging. If feedback becomes a common part of classroom learning, students will begin to understand it is meant to be a beneficial tool for them rather than a critique – a lesson that will benefit them in their future careers. 

The goal of feedback in learning is to highlight a failure and use it as a learning tool. This constructive process can lead to new knowledge that can be applied to future lessons, creating a stronger foundation for STEM learning.

Creating a Safe Space for Experimentation

There is a commonly used phrase, “There are no stupid questions”. Oftentimes, this cliche phrase is used but not emphasized to students. When creating a safe space for experimentation and potential failure, students need to know they are free to make mistakes and ask questions without judgment. When this environment has been successfully created, students and educators will have a more pleasant learning experience with far better learning outcomes.

Cultivating Resilient Learners

By embracing failure and using it as a launching point for future learning and success, students are creating a more resilient mindset they can use throughout their education, future careers, and personal lives. Parents and educators play a key role in removing the negative stigma around failing – allowing students to redefine what the word means to them. 

John Steinbeck once said, “And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.” A lesson STEM educators and parents alike can share with their students, emphasizing that sometimes the best, most beautiful things come from failed attempts where someone was brave enough to try again.

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