Failure As Opportunity: Teaching Students Life’s Valuable Lessons

No one likes to fail — even talking about failure can be difficult. We’re all taught from a young age that failure is something to avoid or even to fear. But this school year, my 7th grade students started to understand an important life lesson about how failure equals opportunity in disguise.

Last year, my school — Woodland Park Middle School — started implementing Summit Learning in our classrooms. This personalized learning approach enables students to customize their learning based on their needs, their interests, and how they learn best. It helps my students learn the skills and habits necessary for success in life. Students work on projects, have a personal mentor, and learn content by completing focus areas. This setup means that I get to work with each student, helping them in ways that are best for them.

I remember one particular 7th grader last year who was really struggling with a focus area on the history of the Silk Road, an ancient network of trade routes that connected Asia with the Middle East and Europe for centuries. This student was an advanced learner, the kind of student that took 10 pages of notes for each lesson and was really well-prepared in class; however, the focus area on the Silk Road happened to be where she hit a wall. She was having trouble passing the content assessment to move ahead.

We sat down to talk about what had worked for her on the other assessments throughout the school year where she had been successful. I helped her analyze what she did to prepare for each of those — was it how she took notes, how she organized her notes, or maybe the way she had been studying? We decided that she would then go back to the Silk Road content and try all of these strategies to make sure she learned the information.

But she still wasn’t passing the content assessments. It got to the point where I even got an email from her parents asking me, “When do we just let this kid quit on this focus area and move on?”

All About Confidence

It became clear to me that this was more of a mental block. Because this student was a high achiever, and she was used to passing assessments on the first or second attempt, she had convinced herself that she couldn’t do it. So, I told her to put it aside for now and work on another focus area. She switched over to another subject, took a content assessment on that topic after she had learned the material, and passed it on the first try!

That’s what she was used to, and experiencing her normal level of success helped her gain confidence back. A week later, she went back to the Silk Road, took the content assessment, and passed it.

What really impressed me was that she never quit, even when her parents sent that email. As a teacher, it was exciting to see that happen and an awesome moment for that student.

“In my classroom, students understand that failure is not the end of the game. They know they have the freedom to fail, learn from it, and be more successful next time.”

7th grade students in Greg Spalding’s social studies class play a digital learning game.

Learning to Persevere in the Face of Failure

Summit Learning’s approach enables these wonderful learning moments to happen. If this student had taken the assessment in the traditional classroom she would have failed the first time, felt miserable because she was a high achiever but couldn’t “get” this topic, and not had the chance to try again. At Woodland Park, there was no punishment for this student not passing this focus area on the first try — she had the flexibility to switch gears, regroup, and come back to try again. Once she was able to prove her mastery, she could then decide to move to a new focus area.

After this student passed the focus area on the Silk Road, we had a conversation about what it means to struggle and how important it is to persevere and work through these challenges. It’s an invaluable lesson that all of the students in my class are learning.

Of course, they don’t do this alone. As a teacher, it’s a lesson in perseverance for me, too. I ask my students, “If you’re not successful, what will it take for you to get there?” I have to constantly teach the students to be flexible. I work with each of them to help them understand how they learn, recognize how they study and absorb information, and then establish a pattern for improved and continuous learning.

Failure simply means that you get back up and try again. That’s not just a lesson for 7th grade, it’s a lesson for all of us.


About the author

Greg Spalding
Greg Spalding is a middle school Social Studies teacher at Woodland Park Middle School in Woodland Park, Colorado. After graduating from law school and passing the bar exam, he discovered his love of teaching and went back to school to become a teacher. He has been a teacher for over 15 years at Woodland Park. He is in his second year with Summit Learning.