Why a fear of failure stops students from learning

How embracing mistakes leads to meaningful learning

Dave Kinkead Sep 21, 2020

Fear of failure can seem like it's becoming an epidemic in the classroom these days.

High stakes testing, an ever increasing pressure to perform and get top marks, or an instagram-generation growing up in an environment where only the perfect is made visible are just some of the many possible things contributing to this phenomena.

But whatever the cause, the effect is typically the same. Fear of failure prevents students from taking action, from experimenting, exploring concepts, and having a go.

Simply put, a fear of failure is toxic for learning environments.

The psychology of fear

The empiric evidence about the fear of failure is clear. It's a major contributor to student anxiety, and school related stress is known to negatively affect academic performance.

What's more, this negative influence of stress on academic performance is enhanced when combined with high academic expectations.

A fear of failure is also associated with the use of less effective learning strategies and even cheating. These increased stress levels, loss of control, and loss of confidence, all negatively impact student resilience.

A fear of failure often leads to actual failure. The wrong type of failure.

Part of the problem is that parents and students (and sometimes even teachers) conflate errors with failure.

The distinction I want to make here is one of time frame. Errors and mistakes are one-off events in which the actual outcome doesn't match the expected or 'correct' one.

Failure by contrast, is the result of a systematic or repeated process. If success is the achievement of some aim or goal, failure is it's the absence.

So while it's perfectly reasonable to want to avoid failure, we need to make mistakes in order to learn. Let me explain why ...

The epistemology of error

One of the ways we make sense of the world is by constructing mental models. We observe the world around us and make connections between the bits and pieces that we single out. We then theorise about how these things affect each other and ponder why is it so?

But these models are inherently inaccurate.

One reason for this is that many of the concepts and phenomena we are trying to reason about are too complex for our working memory. We simply can't keep all the moving parts in our mind at one time so we need to abstract away the details and simplify our model in order to understand it.

Another, more important reason our models of the world are inaccurate however, is that we don't have access to what we really want to know.

When we reason about science, we are reasoning about causation but we can only ever observe effects - we have to theorise about the actual cause from effects. When we reason about people, we are reasoning about psychology but we can only ever observe behaviours - we have to attribute motivation from actions.

But the map is not the territory. There are many possible theories that can explain what we observe and many possible mental models we could construct around them - a problem know as underdetermination.

We therefore have no way of knowing which possible mental models are better unless we make mistakes. When we get the right answer to a question, it's very hard to tell if our model is a good one or if we are just lucky.

So we need to test the boundaries of our models in order to improve them - to make predictions and evaluate the results.

Getting a correct answer to a question can certainly make us feel clever. It might also mean that our mental models are accurate. But it's just as likely that we just got lucky - that our model is wrong but predicted the 'right' answer just in this case.

A broken clock is right twice a day.

Making errors on the other hand, gives us concrete evidence that our model is wrong and demands that we update our beliefs. Mistakes are informative and actionable. They are essential to the learning process.

Pedagogical imperatives

Understanding the difference between errors and mistakes on one hand, and failure on the other, can positively change the way we approach teaching.

One important outcome of education is that students learn and apply facts and theories. A more important outcome however, is that students also learn how to think critically.

And a very effective way of doing this is with inquiry-lead pedagogy that explicitly focuses on metacognition - an approach we call Teaching for Thinking.

Inquiry based pedagogies demand that students have a reason to inquire - a natural curiosity, an unanswered question, or an unsolved problem. They need what Dewey and Piaget referred to as epistemic disequilibrium - a cognitive imbalance between what students think they know about a concept or phenomenon, and what they observe about it.

Making mistakes in the classroom serves an essential role in generating this disequilibrium by motivating inquiry. Mistakes and errors give us reasons to explore further.

Combined with skilled questioning, mistakes can help develop a deeper understanding of both subject matter content and metacognition. So when students make errors or get answers wrong, they present us with a fabulous opportunity to motivate inquiry in the classroom.

Focusing just on being right without exploring why we are wrong hobbles both understanding and intellectual capacity. The somewhat paradoxical conclusion then, is that in order to avoid failure, we must embrace making errors.