School tells students and their parents it's okay to fail

Second-graders, front from left, Karinna Soto, Reese Wilkinson, Addison Patapoff and Grant Davis, all 7, and their classmates at Sanders Memorial Elementary in Land O’Lakes spent part of their first day of school last week watching a video with basketball legend Michael Jordan talking about the many failures he experienced on the path to success.
Second-graders, front from left, Karinna Soto, Reese Wilkinson, Addison Patapoff and Grant Davis, all 7, and their classmates at Sanders Memorial Elementary in Land O’Lakes spent part of their first day of school last week watching a video with basketball legend Michael Jordan talking about the many failures he experienced on the path to success.
Published Aug. 31, 2015

LAND O'LAKES — Preparing to market his new magnet school to parents, Sanders Memorial Elementary principal Jason Petry highlighted four core principles.

Students first ... Learners have voice and choice ... Positive relationships lead to positive outcomes ... Failing forward.

That last one jumped out at district communication director Linda Cobbe.

"Failure is a negative thing," Cobbe said. She tried to dissuade Petry from using the term so prominently, but he stood firm.

"It's what we believe in," he explained. "We want kids to have that productive struggle."

Across the nation, with schools focused on accountability and achievement, educators are taking a closer look at what it means to succeed. And a growing number of experts say it involves failing.

"Failure is an impactful and sometimes requisite step to realize great success," said Southwestern University president Edward Burger, co-author of The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking. "There is no greater teacher than one's own mistakes."

Some use the word "grit." Others call it perseverance.

All look beyond test scores, hoping to refocus on children's ability to understand their errors and build on them.

The examples they use abound. Thomas Edison tried 10,000 times to create a light bulb before it worked. Michael Jordan missed more than 9,000 shots in his basketball career.

"I've failed over and over and over again in my life, and that is why I succeed," Jordan has said.

Sanders Elementary has embraced the philosophy school-wide.

Rather than being disturbed, parents said they found the concept refreshing.

"I think we set up our kids for failure if we don't let them see that failure is a part of life," said Aaron Richardson, whose three children attend Sanders. "With the school incorporating it as part of their mantra, it's great for the kids."

Lisa Finley, who has two daughters at the school, expected students would more willingly go out on a limb if they know they won't be frowned upon for poor results.

"I think this is the way all schools are going to go," she said.

Second-grade teacher Jennifer Niles wasted no time introducing the concept to her students on the first day of school last week.

As her students wrote about their favorite things, Niles told them that the school uses "failing forward" all year.

"What do you think when you hear the word 'failing'?" she asked the children.

"It's when you do something wrong," offered Makenna Henry, 7.

"I thought you meant epic fail," chimed in Ryan Wagenhofer, also 7. "I do that a lot of times."

Niles received a mix of responses when she asked if it's bad to fail. She then told the children her view.

"In this classroom, and in this school, it's going to be okay if you make mistakes," Niles said. "That's going to be a big thing in our class. It's okay not to get it right the first time, as long as you don't, what?"

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She paused for ideas from the kids.

"Panic?" "Never give up?"

"Right," Niles said. "That's going to be our class motto."

After watching two videos on the topic with the rest of the school's second-graders, the class returned to its room for some hands-on reinforcement. In small groups, the children had to make the tallest tower they could using only 24 inches of masking tape and 100 index cards.

The teams tried a variety of approaches — folding, piling, stacking among them — with many collapses along the way.

"We're trying to make it better," Jordon Rappaport, 7, said of his group's effort. "It failed. It fell."

About 10 minutes in, Niles encouraged the groups to seek inspiration by looking at what the others had done.

Jackson Stephens' idea of rolling some cards into tubes for stability won many converts.

"It's working," observed Joshua Tuthill, 8.

Ryan Wagenhofer's group persevered through "a million problems" with its "tenting" approach to win the challenge.

In an era when so many people focus on grades and test scores, it can be difficult to get full buy-in for what Burger called "effective failure."

"We've got so much cultural baggage associated with failure that it makes it a scary word for people," said Greg Siering, executive director of Indiana University Bloomington's Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning.

"It's not that we want to promote failure," he said. "We want to make learning structures that allow kids to fail at a smaller level, and figure out how they learn from that failure."

That's the critical piece, suggested Burger, who attaches 5 percent of his students' grades to their ability to deal with failure.

"In my mind, education should mean a life-changing, life-enriching experience that develops habits so that a person will be a life-long learner," he said. "We have to be mindful of what does formal education mean? Is it a credential? Or is it a journey?"

Taking that long-term view, Siering said, it's better to teach kids to handle struggle so they know what to do when they run into life's problems.

Teachers at Sanders will strive to incorporate that mind-set into their daily classroom activities as the new school year unfolds. But they acknowledged it won't be easy for them, their students or parents to change how they react.

"There is going to have to be some unlearning that takes place in order for them to take risks," fifth-grade teacher Donna de la Paz said.

Freaking out over wrong answers or low scores will have to go by the wayside. Instead, the goal will be to determine where students went wrong so they can explain, avoid and build upon their mistakes — even if they had a passing grade.

"Their failures are really successes, as they're able to reflect on them," second-grade teacher Amanda Schmitz said.

The teachers said they're still figuring out exactly how they will implement these principles in their daily work, too.

"We are trying new things. We are going to make some mistakes as well," Schmitz said, suggesting the educators could model their efforts to overcome failures for the children.

Students said they're up to the task.

"Sometimes I get a little upset when I fail," said third-grader Andres Acosta, 8. "But once you fail, you can always try again. Nobody can tell you, you can't try again."

Teachers will explain and suggest different approaches to questions, Andres said. But he added that kids need to learn to do this on their own.

"An easier way to get toward your goals is teach yourself, practice what you know and try different ways of doing it," Andres explained.

By and large, Sanders students expressed support for their school's focus on failure.

"Not everybody is going to immediately get A's on every single thing," said fifth-grader Carlos Hidalgo II, 10. "They'll help you figure out what you did wrong and how to fix it."

If that happens in Sanders classrooms, principal Petry said, then mission accomplished.

"That, to me, is a learning experience," he said.

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at or (813) 909-4614. Follow @JeffSolochek.