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The Upside of Failure


Why are schools putting their students’ failures on display? UCDS’s Assistant Director of Admission, Jane Griffin, explains…. -Ed.

“Learning to Fail”, a recent New York Times article describes a new initiative by Smith College entitled, “Failing Well”. Students and professors volunteer to have their failures projected onto the campus walls, exposing their failures to students walking around campus during orientation and exam time. Their goal is to destigmatize failure. Many other colleges across the country have implemented similar initiatives because they witness a large presence of overstressed students who are debilitated by failure.

While reading this article, I reflected on the way failure is embraced at UCDS. At UCDS admission tours, prospective parents hear from Paula Smith, the Head of the School, about UCDS’s history and philosophy. Paula Smith pulls back the curtain to reveal the inner workings of the school. She describes how the UCDS curriculum is “sticky”, relevant, and challenging for students at any level. The curriculum is designed to help students lean forward, dig in, try many and various strategies, and face the roadblocks to learning before solving problems. We ask our students to take intellectual risks. When taking these risks, it is inevitable that most first attempts will not work. UCDS students are asked to try again and again- exploring and trying different strategies for their learning. Essentially, if the curriculum is designed correctly for the student, they will often experience failure before succeeding. How a student devises new strategies, and views the problem from different angles in order to work around setbacks, is much more important than getting the correct answer. This is where grit is developed and a deeper understanding takes place.

UCDS students are expected to reflect and talk about their process  – and the failures they encountered as they solve problems. I can’t help but think that if all children attended schools like UCDS where intellectual risks are encouraged, and failures are destigmatized, they would become college students void of the stress and fear of setbacks.