The Value of Failing


A new research center at Columbia University is committed to figuring out how to turn failure into success.

Every kid has that moment when she realizes that the adults she admires aren’t perfect. Few children ever learn, however, that the same is true for the inventors and intellectual giants whose distinguished portraits permeate their history textbooks.   

As it turns out, recognizing that visionaries such as Albert Einstein experienced failure can actually help students perform better in school. In 2016, the cognitive-studies researcher Xiaodong Lin-Siegler of Columbia University’s Teachers College published a study that found that high-school students’ science grades improved after they learned about the personal and intellectual struggles of scientists including Einstein and Marie Curie. Students who only learned about the scientists’ achievements saw their grades decline.

On Monday, the Teachers College announced the creation of the interdisciplinary Education for Persistence and Innovation Center, which will be dedicated to studying failure’s educational purpose. Lin-Siegler, who’s overseeing the center, will expand on her own research into the failures of successful people, starting by interviewing Nobel laureates. The center will convene researchers from various academic fields and countries in its effort to better understand how failure can facilitate learning and success.

Research on failure as a motivator is limited, though the evidence that does exist suggests that students can grow both from learning about the failures of other successful people and from experiencing failure themselves. Crucially, for failure to “work,” research indicates that educators and parents need to encourage students to figure out what went wrong and try to improve. “Failure needs to give people a chance to regroup and rewind the clock,” Lin-Siegler explained. Her main goal, she said, is to help students realize that failure is a normal part of the process of learning.

The notion that struggle is key to success has become popular in education circles in recent years. As buzzwords like “grit” garnered attention, they also became controversial: Some psychologists and teachers assert that perseverance and passion are invaluable academic skills that can be learned by anyone, while others argue this emphasis on those values disregards the socioeconomic barriers that can hamper certain students’ achievement.

But Lin-Siegler’s research adds a different dimension to the debate, suggesting that there is a much simpler problem at hand: Many kids today see failure as inherently bad, and success as beyond their reach. Her 2016 study, which tested more than 400 ninth- and 10th-graders at four low-income New York City schools, found that many of the kids viewed success as a result of some kind of natural aptitude that they simply didn’t have. The students didn’t tend to think of famous scientists like Albert Einstein as actual, imperfect people like themselves—students who didn’t learn about the scientists’ struggles were more likely to say that those scientists had innate talent and aptitude which separated them from everyone else. This mentality has been shown to be particularly detrimental to students in STEM fields, where droves of kids who originally seemed interested end up dropping out after they struggle in a class or fail a test.

Lin-Siegler emphasized how widespread misconceptions about success and failure can be, citing her personal experiences. Growing up in a remote village in China, she didn’t even attend school for part of her childhood. She eventually became a tenured professor at Columbia, an accomplishment that dazzled friends and family back home who interpreted her success strictly as the outcome of her intelligence. They didn’t know, she said, that one of her studies was rejected by five academic journals before getting published.

Of course, the value of failure can vary depending on the nature of the task—and the center will explore how educational institutions can navigate those nuances. For example, researchers will investigate strategies for helping medical students think about failure given that, for them, failure can mean another person’s death. Lin-Siegler hopes such strategies will empower medical students to fail in smaller ways, for example, and to decide if and when the medical profession isn’t right for them.  

Failure’s value is something of a tough sell in an education system in which the emphasis on test scores puts teachers under immense pressure to prioritize getting things right, right away. “To let kids fail,” Lin-Siegler acknowledged, “is a really hard thing [for teachers] to do.”