How Do Your Students Handle Failure?

The Mythbusters Explosive Exhibit just opened at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.  I was lucky enough to tour it before it officially opened.  I love the hands-on nature of the exhibition and that you get to declare tests as confirmed, plausible, or busted.  I thought about how my students would do with these.  Most would absolutely LOVE it!  But watching students over the last week, I wondered how they would do at this exhibit.  I have observed students who experienced a failure or mistake get angry and violent, and others who immediately started crying.    Would they be able to separate themselves from the experiments?  Would they see that an idea can fail while they can still succeed?

That led me to wondering, how do we get students to accept failure as an outside event?  That it is ok to make mistakes or have things go horribly wrong without thinking that they are mistakes?

I have tried to create a classroom that supports students and encourages mistakes.  Hey, after all, my classroom is the school computer lab, and stuff always happens with technology.  I make mistakes in front of students all the time.  They see me accidentally click the wrong button, or have trouble typing a password, or forgetting to connect a cable to the projector.  I regularly model how to react.  “Oops.” “Take 2.” “I guess I a little forgetful today.”  I never get angry.  I never get upset.  Mistakes are a fact of life.  I even have a classroom rule that says so.

Despite my modeling, a few weeks ago I was showing students where to find music for a project.  I showed them that there were several music folders to choose from.  As long as the folder started with the letters m-u-s-i-c they were good.  As I was making the rounds through the room to check on progress, I spotted one girl who was crying.  I asked her what was wrong, but she was crying so hard she couldn’t answer.  I was patient.  I got her a tissue and I asked her again.  Eventually she pointed at her computer screen.  She had opened a different folder than the one I chose.  It WAS a music folder.  I showed her that it had the right letters at the beginning and reaffirmed that she had done the right thing.  She kept on crying.  A friend even came over to help and noticed that they had both picked the same folder.  It took another almost 10 minutes before she stopped crying.  I wonder what really upset her?  Was it really that she opened a different folder?  Or was there something else going on that I never could figure out?

Today I had another event that puzzled me.  A student was working on a self paced lesson on Instant Messaging.  On one screen it asked him to click the Save button.  He clicked the Send button by accident.  When it asked him to try again he threw the mouse across the table and stormed out of the room yelling about the stupid computer the entire way.  He has watched me for two years teach lessons where I’ve made mistakes and clicked the wrong tab or single-clicked when I needed to double-click.  He has never seen me throw a mouse across a table and get angry about it.  How much more modeling and support does he need before he understands that we all mess up from time to time.  Two other teachers tried to help intervene and calm him down enough to return to his work.  He couldn’t do it.

Another student is constantly saying “I can’t do it. I can’t do it.” And then he turns around and does a great job and earns a proficient score on his work.  This has been going on for weeks now.  He hasn’t failed at an assignment yet, but he constantly doubts his abilities.  Where does this come from?  How do we get students to move past this negative view of their skills?

Building student self esteem is important, but what if students just can’t get through the wall of doubt they have built around themselves?