Learning is ‘persistence through failure’

As a second-year teacher of fifth-grade special education students, Mark Anderson often feels like a failure. He hasn’t mastered the “pedagogical and content master of all subject areas” or learned how to meet all of his students social and emotional needs. Also, “I’m not Superman.” But that’s OK.  “Learning is fundamentally about persistence through failure,” he writes on Gotham Schools.

Anderson was inspired by Rita Smilkstein’s “We Were Born to Learn,” which calls for “making mistakes, correcting mistakes, learning from them, and trying over, again and again.”

He also quotes Deborah Meier, from her book on trust in schools:

There is no way to avoid doing something dumb when you are inexperienced or lacking in knowledge, except by not trying at all, insisting you don’t care or aren’t interested, thinking the task itself is dumb (not you), or trying secretly so no one can catch your mistakes — or offer you useful feedback. Of course, these are the excuses we drive most kids into when they don’t trust us enough to make mistakes in our presence.

As he learns to be a teacher, Anderson makes mistakes.  He tells students when he’s made a mistake and what he’s learned from it.

The important part of learning is not that we fail, nor even that we fail over and over again. The important part is that we persist. And with time and the proper support, anyone can get better.

Of course, learning from failure is a skill.

About Joanne


  1. I think a lot about what motivates us to push through frustration to mastery. I’m a violinist and hate to practice and my daughter is a violinist who hates to practice, and even knowing that frustration is the key to making leaps of skill and understanding, we still hate it. You can’t eliminate frustration in the learning process; it’s essential to it.

    In the classroom, frustration means failure to most kids. If they were going to be able to do something, they should be able to not get so frustrated, right? But frustration is deeply misunderstood. The point of persisting through frustration is in the brain: that is when new circuits are being formed and insulated. But how does the typical traditional classroom cope with it? And how could we do better?

  2. Sharing your mistakes with participants can be invaluable. How can we expect others to try and fail if we don’t model this as facilitators? When we humbly enter into learning with others, they are helpful and we help create an atmosphere of safety.
    Best regards,
    RJ Johnson