Flipping failure

Building scholarly identity

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And he-llo to thought-for-a-Thursday. Have you been framing success? If so, it’s time to jump through the mirror and do the same for failure

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A growing sense of success (aka expectancy) is vital for motivation. However, expectancy is more easily destroyed than developed, and is most vulnerable in the initial stages of learning. With only a few experiences to draw upon, each early success or failure can have an inordinate effect on student motivation.

However, despite our efforts, students will fail. It is an inevitable part of school, and an important aspect of life.

And so, during these early experiences, not only do we want to be deliberate in our efforts to secure success, we also want to flip failure.

“Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.”

— Winston Churchill

Flipping failure is about reducing the negative impact of mistakes and misconceptions before and when they arise and helping students to ultimately view them as an opportunity to be embraced, rather than an experience to be avoided. We can do this by:

  1. Pre-empting Communicating that failure is a natural and expected part of school and life... that it has happened before and that people—just like them—have bounced back and gone on to do great things.

  2. Reframing Celebrating failure as an opportunity to learn. This can also compensate for the inevitable negative (and potentially cognitively impairing) emotions that accompany failure.

  3. Reattributing Focussing on the mistake rather than the mistake maker, and messaging that if students are following guidance and putting in the effort, then it is more likely a failure of the system—such as the teacher not pitching the lesson quite right or breaking topics down well enough.

Repeated success generates expectancy at increasingly ‘deeper’ levels. As this happens, we construct narratives to explain and give meaning to these recurring emotional experiences.

Over time, students can move from telling themselves that I can do these questions to I can do fractions to I am good at maths. Eventually, if this is replicated across years and subjects, some may even get to the point of thinking I’m a great learner.

As student expectancy deepens, their tolerance for challenge and failure grows, and their perception of success becomes more nuanced. Over time, we can push them harder and worry less about securing a consistent success rate.

Getting to this point can take years of collaborative endeavour. However, it’s totally worth it. Setting students up as committed life-long learners is one of the greatest gifts we can give.


• Success is fragile in the early stages—failure is a constant threat.

• We can mitigate the negative effects of failure by pre-empting it, reframing it, and reattributing it.

• Over time, repeated success can eventually lead to a scholarly identity, which is the ultimate learner’s mindset.

Challenge → How do students view failure in your class (or school)? Is there anything you could do to help them see if more productively?

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