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Is Failure Good for Exploration and Learning?

June 23, 2022

Filed in: Learning & Education

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Developmental science is clear—young people’s willingness to explore and try the new and unknown during adolescence is important to positive development. But can failing at these new things still be good for learning?

This was the third question tackled at our first annual Brain Development Symposium by panelists Catherine Hartley, PhD, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at New York University, and Ken Ginsburg, MD, MSEd, founding director of the Center for Parent and Teen Communication.

“Failure is a key driver of exploration,” Cate explained. “You try something that doesn’t work, it’s an indication that you need to try something differently. It’s really a critical part of a process of adaptation.”

By trying new things, even if they don’t always work out, youth can ask themselves questions like, “Do I like this?” and “Do I understand this?” These are important learning signals, which we can use to decipher our needs and wants.

“Failure is an important source of feedback,” Cate said. It can tell us to try something in a different way, or let us know that our strategy isn’t as effective as we thought it would be. It gives us information to learn from.

So, how can we optimize failure for learning?

“You have to create situations that present the opportunity to engage in new activities,” said Cate. “If you only continue to do the things you’re good at, you forgo the opportunity to discover the things that you haven’t tried yet that you might be great at.”

By encouraging youth to engage in activities where they’re trying something new, or encountering novel and uncertain situations, adults can help young people discover who they are. Regardless of the outcome, taking chances can lead to new learning opportunities for youth — whether it’s learning that they prefer English class over Chemistry, or that they love theatre more than they thought they did, all outcomes are opportunities for discovery and growth.

Of course parents need to draw firm boundaries around issues of safety. “But there is a fine line between being protective–preventing someone from doing something unsafe–and being overprotective,” said Cate.

“Part of the challenge of adolescence is developing autonomy, mastery, and competence,” Cate said. “In order to do that, you have to allow the adolescent to take control of their behavior and try new things.”

Parents often feel they must do everything they can to prevent their child from coming into contact with failure as a way of protecting them. Although well-intentioned, this can interfere with real learning.

“We can protect our child through helicoptering, but if we do that we’re going to miss the major opportunity we actually have to protect our child, which is to prepare our child for the real world,” said Ken. “You want your child to make their mistakes, their missteps, while they’re under your watchful eye and you can still guide them and correct them in a loving, not condemning manner.”

Another way for adults to optimize failure for learning is by reframing the conversation regarding what it means to “fail.” “We have to have young people understand that failure is something you experience to grow,” said Ken. “That it’s an opportunity, that it might be a misstep, but if nothing else, that it is a place to learn.

Supporting youth as they navigate these learning experiences also sends an important message to young people that your family loves you even in the face of missteps.

In addition to considering how they talk about failure, adults can also reevaluate how they frame success. “Success is not the absence of failure,” said Ken. “Success is about being the kind of adult who can make a difference in the world, who can contribute, who is a good person, and who cares for and about other people.”

Finally, we as a society need to ensure that all young people have the support and resources they need to try, fail, and to learn from these failures. The line between safe and unsafe failures differs for different people due to socioeconomic status, race, psychiatric labeling, and systemic consequences within the juvenile justice and foster care systems.

“What we don’t want is for children who grow up in low SES households to encounter a higher probability of failure in their STEM classes,” Cate said. “If this is the case, they will learn that this is something I’m not good at.”

Key Takeaways

  • Trying new things and sometimes failing at them is an essential part of figuring out who we are, what we like, and what we’re good at.
  • When we prevent young people from experiencing failure, we miss a key opportunity to let them make mistakes while they have the support of caring adults to help them learn from them.
  • As adults, we can help create opportunities for youth to engage in new experiences that challenge them to do things that can be uncertain and even a little bit scary.
  • As a society, we need to ensure that all young people have the opportunities and support to try new things, make mistakes, and to learn from those mistakes.
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