“How Have You Failed?” One Way I Encourage My Students to Take Risks

by | 07.28.21

Jillian DuBois is a teacher in Florida. Follow her on Twitter @JillDuBois22.

At the end of last school year, I sat down and asked my students, “How have you failed this year?”

It sounded like a tough question, but that’s exactly why I was asking. Because when students feel like they might be failing, I want them to understand that what they’re really doing is learning. That means teaching kids to tap into their growth mindset, every time they have that feeling – and here’s how I love to do that:

When I first started teaching, I thought I should instill or build a growth mindset in my students, so they could become confident about taking risks. But in my journey as an educator, I’ve come to realize that a growth mindset isn’t something we need to introduce to our students – because it’s already there! My kids already feel so much curiosity and confidence and excitement for growth. As their teacher, my students need me to protect and nurture that growth mindset – so in times of challenge, they can tap right into it and find their fuel to keep trying.

I try to unite reflection and risk-taking in our classroom culture, so we start each day with some journaling time. That’s where my question came in: I wrote it on the board, and my students spent a few minutes writing their responses. After journaling, we always spend some time reflecting together, and I asked them to share some of their replies: “I failed a math test and let myself down.” “I came in last in the relay race and let my teammates down.” Those answers didn’t surprise me, because students often have the idea that failure is a short story with a sad ending: They didn’t do something well, and as a result, they disappointed themselves or someone else. But the reason I ask my students to reflect on questions like this is so I can guide them to realize that a failure is just a moment in their journey, not an ending – and without those moments, the journey couldn’t happen at all.

So I invited my students to think of other times when they had taken a risk, like the first time they tried to ride a bike or hit a baseball. They remembered how the only way they could learn to ride a bike was by falling off and getting back on, again and again – there was no way to succeed without failing first! By encouraging my kids to reflect on those experiences, I actively shelter and encourage the growth mindset within them: I can show them that in those moments, they reached inside and found the determination and inspiration and fire to keep climbing – and to reach new heights.

Students might think that failure is something they need to avoid at all costs, but I want my students to know that when they try to avoid failing, what they really end up avoiding is making discoveries, mastering new skills – and experiencing joy. By asking them, “How have you failed?” I can show my kids that the moments when they take risks, struggle or stumble are the moments when they grow the most.

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