(Editor’s Note: Shane Safir’s post on helping students learn from mistakes arrived too late for my Education Week Teacher series on the topic, but she agreed to let me publish it here as a guest post. I’m adding it to The Best Posts, Articles & Videos About Learning From Mistakes & Failures)

Shane Safir is a coach, writer, and facilitator who has worked in public education for twenty years. She was the cofounding principal of June Jordan School for Equity, an innovative national model identified by scholar Linda Darling- Hammond as having “beaten the odds in supporting the success of low-income students of color.” She is the author of the forthcoming book The Listening Leader: Creating the Conditions for Equitable School Transformation (Jossey-Bass, 2017). Visit Shane at or follow her @ShaneSafir:

Make it safe to struggle

It’s easy for teachers to encourage failure, but harder for students to willingly expose their weaknesses. I recall a ninth grader I taught, Ed, who often told jokes and blurted out distracting comments in the middle of class. Ed drove me crazy until I realized the source of these behaviors: he couldn’t read. At 15 years old, he struggled with basic decoding and lacked the fluency necessary for success in high school. His daily shenanigans were clearly a strategy to mask his vulnerability as a reader.

Looking back, I recognize that Ed didn’t feel safe to struggle in my classroom. As humbling as it is to admit, this was ultimately my issue as his teacher. While we talk often about students’ cognitive zone of proximal development (ZPD, Vygotsky), we sometimes forget the emotional zone in which students must sit to struggle through complex tasks. The second a child moves from their emotional ZPD into a zone of frustration, we see the types of fight-or-flight behaviors that Ed displayed.

For our students to master challenging skills and concepts, they must be willing to engage in productive struggle—to bravely opt in to risk-taking, mistake-making, and vulnerability. How can teachers make it safe for students to struggle? Here are a few ideas.

  1. Model the value of failure. Share your own struggles as a human being, learner, and educator. When a lesson doesn’t go as planned, consider saying to your class, “Well that went a little differently than I thought it would, and that’s okay! I am learning to embrace struggle and failure as part of my growth as your teacher.” Share a time when you failed at something that mattered to you, and how you learned and grew from the experience.
  1. Incorporate a “best failure” ritual. Leadership author Ronald Heifetz shares a routine called “best failure” in which team members reflect on what they gained by tackling a specific challenge from the past week. Consider having kids do something similar in small groups each Friday. After each student shares, ask the class, what are we learning together about struggle and failure in the learning process? Be sure to chart responses!
  1. Engage students in reflective journals. Metacognition is a critical element of deep learning and another way to incorporate struggle into the classroom. Launch reflective journals at the beginning of the year to model the value of reflection. As your students complete a unit or project, have them write in their journals about successes, challenges, and lessons learned. Invite them to set a growth goal for the next project.
  1. Do a “strife and struggle” oral history project. Every student has adults they look up to, and those adults carry stories of strife and struggle. Consider doing an oral history project in which students interview an adult they admire about an experience of strife or struggle, what happened, and what they learned from it. To leverage technology, invite students to capture audio or video clips of these oral histories to share in class.

Above all else, remember that creating a safe-to-struggle classroom culture is an ongoing process. Your actions will speak even louder than your words so look for small opportunities to model these values. As students take risks, celebrate their successes and failures in equal measure and affirm the courage it takes to fail.