Should I let kids fail?

An after-school robotics club advisor asks whether she should let students fail at what’s supposed to be a fun activity. Laura Reasoner Jones, a technology teacher in Virginia, coached fifth and sixth graders, who were supposed to build and program robots for a demonstration to which parents were invited. Two of the five teams didn’t get a robot to work.

Am I going to let them experience the natural consequences of inaction, or am I going to intervene and fix things?

. . . They spent weeks playing with the software but would not use any of the canned programs that are great starting places.

. . . When they finally got a robot built and found they could not get the program to work, they were unwilling to either tinker with it or start over, and the time just dribbled away. So, now it is the last week before the demo, and they have nothing. Nothing!!!

Jones decided she could not let them “watch all of their friends be applauded and praised by staff and parents,” while they had nothing to show.

(The after-school program) is about personal success, whatever form that may take.

I think about my goals for this project. I want each child to build and program a robot, learning that he/she can do new things and stretch his/her brain into new fields without fear of failure. I want each child to see herself/himself as an engineer, a builder, a creator. And above all, I want each child to feel pride in his/her work.

But personally, as a mother and as a teacher, I also want each child to learn from mistakes, to take risks and experience the consequences of risk-taking. I don’t want to rescue kids. I want them to learn to rescue themselves.

Finally, she decided to ask the engineer mentors to rescue the slacker students so they could “experience success.”

Is it really success? Would failure have been more educational?

In my book, Our School, a hard-knock charter school, Downtown College Prep, sends teams of students to compete in a Silicon Valley robotics contest called the Tech Challenge.  The best team takes fourth place; another team’s robot fails the challenge, while the girls’ team is sidelined by a bad battery.

“You’re all champions,” says the presenter. Adam and Rico look dubious. They don’t want anyone saying this was their best effort, because it wasn’t. They can do better.

. . . The Lady Lobos also aren’t satisfied with their performance. They glare at their yellow ribbons, given for participating. Their machine didn’t work, and they’re not going to pretend it did.

After three fourth-place finishes in the Tech Challenge, a DCP team won the grand prize in 2004. One of things those kids learned was how to try, fail, get up off the floor and try harder and smarter next time around.

About Joanne


  1. If I’ve said it once I’ve said it a million times: Self-esteem is the *result* of achievement, not the cause of it.

  2. She should have set a deadline for the completed, working project well prior to the parent demonstration. Those who didn’t make the deadline shouldn’t be able to demonstrate at the “show”. Make the show the reward for a working project. No working model, no show.

  3. “‘You’re all champions,’ says the presenter.”

    Why this belief on the part of so many K-12 educators…especially administrators, apparently…that failure of any kind is emotionally destructive to kids? Is it perhaps that many of these educators are themselves emotionally very fragile people and are projecting their own weaknesses into their students?

  4. Engineers learn from mistakes. I had a class, nominally called Circuit Analysis III, which was in reality Digital Design I. There were only two grades given, an A and an I (incomplete). We did three projects during the semester, and if the project as turned in (schematics, parts list, costs) wouldn’t work, you got it back and had to fix it so it would.

    It was a very interesting course, and much closer to engineering reality than any other course I took.

    And in real life, it’s our mistakes that advance our learning much more than something that worked out the first time we tried it.

  5. She took a fantastic learning opportunity away from those kids. What a shame.

  6. > Why this belief on the part of so many K-12 educators…especially administrators, apparently…that failure of any kind is emotionally destructive to kids?

    It presents a useful facade of concern.

    Useful both in maintenance of the self-respect of educators and useful in that it projects a commitment to education that’s present in inverse proportion to the importance placed on self-esteem as an end in itself.


    Please, can’t we finally bury the idea that children need to be told that they and their work (however late, incomplete,sloppy, incorrect, incomprehensible etc.) are wonderful because failing to do so will damage their self-esteem?

    As I remember, the whole idea came out of a study that found correlation between high achievement and high self-esteem. The education establishment failed – again- to differentiate between correlation and causation and immediately arrived at the conclusion that constantly telling kids they/their work were wonderful and never criticizing them/their work would result in high achievement. The idea that self-esteem might be a RESULT of high achievement, instead of a CAUSE, doesn’t seem to have occurred to them.

    Those kids did not “experience success”, did not “take pride in their work”, did not “learn from mistakes”, did not “take risks”, and did not “experience consequences of risk-taking.” Instead, they learned that if they slacked off enough, someone (the teacher) would see to it that they not only paid no price for their actions, but that they would be publicly rewarded for someone else’s work. Is that the lesson she wanted them to learn? Far too often, it seems to be the result and it explains why educational outcomes are so disappointing and employers so unhappy.

  8. tim-10-ber says:

    Why weren’t the kids whose robots did not work talk about what they believe went wrong with the project? Don’t you learn by doing? Not everyone gets it on the first try.

    These kids would get to demonstrate knowledge and maybe…just maybe would be motivated on their own to try to make the robot work.

    This is an after school program. It is not for a grade but it could have been a learning experience for all the participants.

    Had this been in a classroom…the kids would have been graded on a rubric (however it is spelled). They would have been scored and given a final grade by what was set out at the start of the project.

    I would still have hoped in a class room setting those whose robots did not work would have been able to share what they learned from doing. It would help them and others see we all learn from our mistakes.

  9. Stacy in NJ says:

    The reason that many adults/teachers won’t let students fail is because it reflects poorly on them. They failed to teach/lead. Adults want the parents and other teachers to be impressed with the outcome of their program, and if students fail to produce some demonstratable outcome if effects their social worth.

    It’s less about letting students fail and more about how the leaders are perceived in their schools and communities.

  10. I’m in the ‘let them fail’ school. Your post reminds of something that happened a couple of years ago in my classroom. Ben came in on Tuesday after competing in a math competition over the weekend. He’d won several ribbons including a pink one. I asked him what that was for and he said he’d won that ribbon for SEVENTEENTH place in mental math. We got a laugh out of that. I teach gifted kids and they don’t need any more hollow accolades–making straight ‘A’s on grade level work is such ‘false’ praise and they know it.

    I’m as competitive as the next guy but I ain’t givin’ out trophies for seventh place. Each year I tell my new kids that story–that was when they complain I can say “no reward for 17th place!”

  11. Stacy in NJ is on to something, but I disagree with the idea that a kid’s failure is always an adult’s failure to lead or teach. The students do need to put effort in to learn and succeed too, and some times the failure really does come down to the student’s failure to work hard enough, as it seems with the robot thing here. If several groups were successful and the teacher tried to lead the other kids to the successful methods, it doesn’t seem likely that it’s the teachers fault. Or for another example, not every Boy Scout becomes an Eagle Scout, and it’s probably not all the Scout Master’s fault.

    However, I do think that because so many people do seem to believe that adults are 100% responsible for what kids do, especially when the kids fail, many adults are afraid to let kids face the appropriate consequences for their lack of effort. I’ve noticed that parents will now step in and do things for their kids when the outcome for the kids’ effort is less than ideal. This happens even in activities for which there’s no grade or contest, like decorations for a party or following through on a service project. What does a kid learn from that?

    At some point, you have to learn that you rise or fall based largely on how much effort you put it.

  12. NDC, I don’t actually think that the reason students fail is an expression of the teachers failure to teach ~ in totality. My initial post was poorly worded. I think in part it’s true, but I also think our (general culture “our”) unrealistic or Disneyland-like exprectations play a part as well. Our belief that all kids should be “engaged”, “challenged”, and “winners”, and it’s an adult responsibility to make sure that happens, leads us to force fake achievement on our kiddos. Which then forces us to fake positive outcomes to impress our peers, our employeers and our community. The kids know fake when they sniff it out and they become cynical about adults and achievement.

    Let those who want to participate participate. Set up measureable incremental goals that must be met to progress in the program. Don’t let students waste their teacher’s time. Don’t let teachers waste student’s time by being unprepared to teach or lead. Reward those who work hard to met goals whether they master the specific material or not. Reward those who work hard and do reach the goal even more.

  13. Disneyland-like expectations is a great way of putting it.

    I don’t think life should be set up to be deliberately punishing for kids, obviously, but we seem to be losing how valuable failure is as a learning tool.

    I understand and agree with Margo’s points about what gets blamed on NCLB vs what teachers actually could have taught without it, but I do see, at the high school level, an emphasis on graduation rate that has lead to making it really, really hard to award a failing grades to students who honestly deserve them because of their complete failure to even consistently attempt to learn the material.

    Again, it’s not NCLB’s fault schools decided that the appropriate response to being held responsible for how many kids graduated on time was to essentially just give the kids credits for nothing. But, it did give schools an incentive to spare kids academic failure and because it’s so much easier to just pass everyone than to figure out how to retool human motivation, the schools seem to have gone down one path rather than the other. . .

    This might not be a complete disaster if it weren’t happening at the same time that extracurricular activities and sports leagues had also decided that participation rather than success was what was most valuable.

    Stacy, your suggestion of incremental goals is a good one, but it also may put more work on the teacher in this program to measure and document progress officially, and after all she isn’t really the one responsible for what went wrong here, IMO. Flopping at the big parent night seems about right to me. It’s hardly the end of the world.

  14. Sorry for responding to two threads of posts at the same time; I was just thinking about both overnight, I guess, and I think that “official” bad policy in education creeps into everything.

  15. I’m with tim-10-ber. Have the kids present on why they failed and what they learned from it – that can be more valuable in the long run than succeeding.
    I am one of those people who thinks that reading, writing and basic mathematics are so vital that every school should do all they possibly can to ensure that every kid learns them whether the kid likes it or not. But with other skills I think we can afford some failure & learning to live with it and learning how to analyse what went wrong.

  16. Andy Freeman says:

    There are worse things than not being allowed to participate with a non-functioning robot. One of them is participating with a non-functioning robot.

    Schools that teach that there’s always an opportunity for “do-over” or that “no-show” is acceptable are teaching kids to fail.

  17. I think Stacy in NJ nailed it. A lot (not all, though) of the reason we don’t want kids to fail is b.c we, the adults, are protecting ourselves. It’s not that it actually *is* the adults fault (though many times it is, no doubt), it’s just that that’s a treasured cultural belief we hold and we don’t want the students’ performance reflecting badly on us.

    On another note, this anecdote made me remember a time I failed. When I was younger I was heavily involved in Tae-Kwon-Do. I failed the test for black belt 6 TIMES. Six. Seis. 6…I remember crying so hard after the sixth failure. I eventually passed legitimately without someone else bootstrapping me, and that black belt meant the world to me. Its value would have been incredibly diminished had the instructor lowered the bar so I could pass or if he somehow would “not have let me fail.” Also, as many in the comments have pointed out, those failures taught me something that no amount of “experiencing success” could ever teach me.

    I failed 6 times, and I turned out allright.