Teaching & Learning: How Schools Can Embrace Student Failure

When I was president of Grinnell College, I’d brace myself at the start of each school year for the inevitable cases of students who experimented with their newfound freedom. Many students found themselves thrown into a new world, and for the first time, they would have to make difficult choices, often involving alcohol. They’d have to learn from their experiences. And in the early years of my decade-long tenure I, too, found myself in a new world having to learn from new experiences.
I had never spent any time at a liberal arts college. I needed to learn about the culture of that unique part of the U.S. higher education community. Now, as head of school at Phillips Academy (MA), I find myself in a similar state with the new-to-me culture of a residential secondary school. Being thrown in this world, for me, includes a new sense of responsibility, knowing that high school students are navigating the most formative years of their lives.
This idea of being “thrown” is something students and adults alike can experience throughout their lives. Sometimes a force—a teacher or a friend or something bigger, like a pandemic—just knocks us off our stance. Other times we choose to be thrown, to step into a new world (being the first person to go to college in a family or studying abroad and getting immersed in a new language or culture). Sometimes, simply interacting with someone from a different background throws us off balance. These experiences allow us to grow.
As we bridge some of the societal chasms we’re facing across the country, schools need to embrace the power of failure. Failure always provides a learning opportunity, and people often achieve their most profound and significant learning through risk-taking, making mistakes, grappling with unfamiliar ideas, adapting plans, and experiencing discomfort. So what better place for students to practice than in a school setting, before being thrown in the real world?

Expanding Perspectives

“Thrownness” is a risky state. It requires us to push ourselves and actively pursue situations that cause discomfort or make us feel vulnerable. I used to identify one thing that I knew would make me uncomfortable and force myself to do it. Each time, whether swimming, exploring religion, sculpting, or horseback riding, I began with something that threw me. And I’ve sought this out professionally; at several points in my career, I chose to take on a new role that I fully knew would knock me off balance, and still, at times I felt much more vulnerable than anticipated.
Introducing this element of vulnerability for students helps them develop as global citizens. It reveals their capacity for empathy and leadership and strengthens their character. Offering opportunities that have the potential to throw our students refines their ability to think, discern, learn, empathize, create and collaborate, and gain even more skills.
To find common ground among people and cultures, we need to encourage our children to embrace the unknown and allow them to see us as we grapple with our own experiences. When we find ourselves in unfamiliar environments, situations, or roles, we must try to use what we already know and have experienced in other scenarios to work hard, learn about the new element, and ultimately figure out how we can contribute and thrive.

Discomforts and missteps are inevitable in this process, usually followed by the satisfaction of figuring something out and potentially finding one’s fit. This is what makes diversity so valuable in an educational community—it allows us to explore new ideas and engage with new types of people in every way.

Concept In Action

As educators, our job is to help students embrace that off-balance feeling as an indication of something new and potentially wonderful. We want them to be open to different views and experiences. We want them to gain a sense of satisfaction by going forward despite the uncomfortable feeling. To achieve this, we must equip them with skills to learn from others, to ask questions respectfully, to explore on their own when they don’t understand something. We give them a liberal education.
By challenging students to explore new areas of academics, athletics, performance, art, leadership, and political and community engagement, schools must also make clear that mistakes are expected—even welcome in both the classroom and in social settings. This holds especially true when we have students who have spent their lives in a homogenous community exposed to a diverse environment and new experiences, like those at Andover.
Of course, embracing failure as an integral part of education and throwing students does not mean we should be setting our students up to fail. It does not mean withholding support and resources to help them weather a challenge, nor does it mean encouraging wild risks or having no consequences for irresponsible choices. It means helping students learn in a respectful, open-minded way about a new context, culture, ways of living. Thrownness provides a balance of challenge and support.
And students need us most when being thrown—something we’ve encouraged—leads them to make bad choices, such as substance abuse or destructive behaviors. We have a responsibility to support students and remind them that thrownness presents growth opportunities throughout our lives as we embrace change. When students find themselves unable to regain their footing, we need to intervene and help them discern between the good thrownness that helps with growth and the bad that can deepen the us-versus-them mentality that thrownness is intended to overcome. 
So why would any of us knowingly agree to a circumstance that leads to being thrown? For me, it’s a combination of persistent curiosity and hope—curiosity about whatever has the power to knock me off balance and hope that resilience, even when I have made mistakes, will ultimately enrich my life and mind. For our students, experiencing these outcomes and engaging with that unsettled feeling makes all the difference in learning to live in a world of constantly expanding knowledge and increasing diversity.
Raynard Kington

Dr. Raynard Kington is head of school at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts.