The short answer to ‘Why is failure important?’ is to paraphrase the twee quotes and sayings that tell us ‘only by failing can we succeed’. Although clichéd – and slightly nauseating – there is truth in these motivational quips.
“Failing”, or rather, answering questions incorrectly in an educational setting, results in more brain activation (Falkenstein, Hoormann, Christ & Hohnsbein, 2000; Moser, Schroder, Heeter, Moran & Lee, 2011), longer lasting memory and better performance on subsequent tests (Kornell, Hays & Bjork, 2009). This is not so surprising when you look at what goes on in our brains when we learn and lay down new memories. What is unfortunate is how little failure is now permitted within schools, homes and society in general. Whether this lack of permission contributes to fixed mindsets, whether a fixed mindset leads to the vilification of failure, or whether there is another cause is not important. Seeing the link between mindset and approach to failure is important, because in this we see the means for fostering growth mindset in all.
Learning and memory
Learning is a process of building new connections in the brain. A simplistic view of this is that as one learns some piece information (for example, Pythagoras’ theorem) all sorts of different electrical signals are being passed along different synapses linking long strings of neurons together. These patterns of activity are the learnt information. Retrieving this information involves reactivating these pathways. To be clear, it is not the case that the knowledge of Pythagoras’s theorem lies at the end of this pathway, rather the pattern of activity along the pathway is the knowledge. As connections between learning about Pythagoras’ theorem and geometry, for example, are learnt, these interconnected topics become interconnected in the electrical patterns of neurological activity as well: On retrieving the memory of Pythagoras’ theorem, my memory for the associated geometric facts is retrieved too.
There are two ways to develop robust memories. First, the pathway has to have strong enough links to travel reliably from beginning to end – this is storage strength. Getting halfway through Pythagoras’ Theorem and then not being able to remember the end would be a failure of the pathway, a failure of the original memory storage. Second, I must be able to reliably access the pathway – retrieval strength. When I am asked for Pythagoras’ Theorem I have to find where the pathway is stored and retrieve it. Forgetting information that one has learnt is often a failure of retrieval, rather than an erasing of the original learnt material. I can’t remember Pythagoras’ theorem because I have lost the initial trace that kickstarts the memory, not because the pathway no longer exists. This is why when I am reminded of Pythagoras’ Theorem, it doesn’t feel like I am learning it afresh, instead I have a moment of ‘Oh yeah! I remember now’. I have found the pathway, I am not making it again.
Where does failure fit it?
Failure is a clue to improving memory retrieval. When a student attempts to answer a question that they do not know the answer to (or at least aren’t sure of the answer to) their brains have to work a lot harder – this is where the greater activation we see in studies such as Falkenstein et al (2000) comes from. The effort in trying to remember something that has just slipped out of automatic retrieval is called active retrieval and active retrieval unsurprisingly increases retrieval strength. The brain tends to operate on the principle that if the task was hard, it was important. After all, if it weren’t, why would we bother persevering through the difficulty? The most important element of active retrieval is having a go, trying even when the answer isn’t clear. Being told the strategy or the answer doesn’t force the brain to work hard to retrieve the memory and so it doesn’t encode such a robust retrieval mechanism for the information pathway. Allowing the possibility of getting it wrong – of failing – is crucial for allowing learners to try. If a learner is terrified that giving the wrong answer will have a negative result, he or she will not try and the benefits of difficult, active retrieval of information will not be had.
Active retrieval encourages long term memory storage which protects memories against decay over time. A good student may perform well during his or her lessons on trigonometry, able to remember and accurately apply Pythagoras’ Theorem. A struggling student may perform relatively poorly, sometimes using Pythagoras’ Theorem accurately, sometimes getting it a bit wrong. Fast forward 7 months: the first student is less likely to remember Pythagoras’ Theorem, all things being equal, because he or she did not have to actively retrieve the information. The second student, who had to work quite hard to use the information is far more likely to have reliably stored the information and be able to reliably retrieve it from his or her long term memory. Being allowed to struggle in the first instance, being comfortable with getting the answer wrong but authentically having a go is crucial to this process.
Failure and mindset
Carol Dweck’s Growth vs Fixed mindset distinction has permission to fail at its core. Failure is anathema to a fixed mindset: if intelligence is fixed and I fail, then I must be stupid. However, if intelligence is something dynamic and alterable then my failure is only indicative that I do not know the information yet. Coupled with what we know about memory and retrieval strength, the failure is almost to be celebrated in a growth mindset: my brain is more active, my memory is being strengthened, my retrieval ability is improving. There is really only good news.
Permitting and encouraging failure is permitting and encouraging experimentation. How do you think I could solve this problem? How could I approach this task? What seems like the right answer? Providing answers to these sorts questions in the face of uncertainty is valuable in all areas of adult life. In the workplace there will be situations we have to muddle through, there are no fool proof strategies for raising children, there is no step-by-step guide to tragic personal events. In all of our lives we have to be willing to pitch in, have a go and be prepared for it not going to plan. If we cannot allow our children to do this in their learning, we do them a great disservice.
The permission to try, fail and try again is vital for all learners. The fear of failure which is so insidious in our current educational culture destroys the mechanism by which we can lay down our most resilient and robust memories and destroys the important self-belief which will carry us through the rest of our lives.
Falkenstein, M., Hoormann, J., Christ, S., and Hohnsbein, J. (2000), ERP components on reaction errors and their functional significance: A tutorial. Biol. Psychol., 51: 87–107.
Kornell, N., Hays, M., and Bjork, R., (2009) Unsuccessful Retrieval Attempts Enhance Subsequent Learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 5(4): 989 –998
Moser, J., Schroder, H., Heeter, C., Moran, T., & Lee, Y. (2011), Mind your errors: evidence for a neural mechanism linking growth mind-set to adaptive posterror adjustments, Psychol. Sci., 12: 1484-1489