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Learning With Confidence
Encouraging Risk and Failure in Learning
Stephen Yurkiw

August 12, 2002


Does education help prepare students to successfully cope, risk, and innovate in a rapidly changing world? A fearless approach to learning, one where mistakes are valued for the lessons they provide, is recommended. Far too often, students allow themselves to be immobilized by fear of making mistakes. Teachers contribute to this situation by stressing correct answers over an examination of processes used to arrive at a solution. This paper examines whether students are developing skills which allow them to confidently tackle challenging problems, generate creative solutions, and learn and adapt from mistakes made. An overview of strategies which help to create an atmosphere of fearless learning in the classroom is also presented. The roles of teachers and students are also discussed, evaluating the benefits and liabilities of the current structure as well as examining what changes need to occur in order to create an atmosphere of fearless learning in the classroom.

I have not failed, I've just found 10,000 ways that don't work.
Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison's enduring fame testifies to his success as an inventor, a success that was firmly built on the foundations of failure. In the contemporary world, in order to be a successful student, employee, spouse, or member of the human race, one must be willing to harness the power of failure, as making mistakes and learning from them is an important component of any success. However, does the contemporary classroom help develop this attitude of risk and innovation? Do schools and teachers help prepare their students to embrace risk, along with the possibility of failure, as a natural step in the process of learning and, as a result help develop and hone students' natural sense of curiosity? Is it possible for schools, which reflect and reinforce the values of Western society, to teach anything but the avoidance of failure and the temporary pain that it brings? An examination of educational research and practice shows that teachers can, in fact, help students overcome their fear of failure and to learn to use it as a path to greater knowledge and success.

Competition in the Classroom

Classrooms typically tend to reflect the characteristics of their society. Western societies lean towards an aggression culture, which can be defined as focusing on individual achievement and competition. In schools, norms are set by the performance of the best students and failure at school is discouraged (Dimmock, 2000). Hawkes (1992) stresses that classrooms tend to foster competition at the expense of learning. This atmosphere encourages students to make judgements about themselves and others based on their successes and failures, with failed results leading to a sense of diminished self-worth. Many students will experience decreased motivation to excel as they begin to conform to the labels that were assumed or given them. Students with low self-esteem will avoid activities they believe are beyond their capabilities, choosing instead easier tasks where their chances of success are greater (Nichols, 1998).Teachers identify a number of desirable student attitudes and actions:

  • To read the next section of the textbook with confidence.
  • To try exercises and not worry about making mistakes.
  • To speak up eagerly in class and share their thoughts, particularly if they have a different view about a problem or question.
  • To explain how they solved a problem, even if they are unsure if their approach is "correct".
    Instead, the opposite is true, as students would rather not make an attempt at solving a problem than to do something incorrectly (Izen, 1999).

Izen (1999) observes that students approach his subject area of mathematics fearfully. They would rather do nothing than do something incorrectly; instead of viewing mistakes as an important component of learning, students view mistakes as something to be avoided at all costs. By setting up a goal of achieving high grades instead of learning as much as possible, students fear that failure will cause their grades to suffer, and, as a result, will not take chances or think creatively. Teachers add to this by overemphasizing correctness instead of original thought or that students should try to learn from the mistakes made. Agnes E. Meyer berates public schools for imposing uniformity of thinking in both its students and faculty, and notes that an educational system that imparts facts without meaning will not benefit humanity (Hawkes, 1992).


At the Online Learning 1999 Conference in Los Angeles, Michael Allen challenged trainers and educators with the question of why students would barely put in effort towards their school work, yet go home and spend hours upon hours playing video games. The obvious answer was that video games were fun. However, lurking behind the obvious was the notion that these amusements also encompassed a strong element of risk. The "solutions" were not easy - they had to be earned, and there was a constant risk of failure. Allen believed that it was this challenge that, in fact, made the games fun and compelling, motivating students to devote large amounts of time to their mastery.

Unfortunately, teachers are much more knowledgeable about educating motivated students than about motivating them in the first place (Burns, 1998). The classroom is teacher-centered rather than student centered. Subject matter is presented in lecture format, an instructional method that encourages passive student involvement (Hawkes, 1992). Not only is this process demotivating, it is also ineffective, as knowledge cannot be transferred from teacher to pupil "like stamping a message from ink-pad onto paper" (Swann, 1998). In this type of setting, motivation is inspired by aversive treatment rather than natural enthusiastic inclinations to learn (Hawkes, 1992). Students are motivated because they need to pass the course to graduate, to move onto post-secondary education or into a career, to avoid the appearance of failure; sadly being motivated to simply learn is seldom heard.

Fatt (1998) notes that students experience little joy in regurgitating information. Instead, students need to be guided to find their own level of potential accomplishment. Many students hide in the classroom because they are unwilling to share the unsuccessful results of their efforts. Teachers will often berate these students for their lack of efforts, but instead they should be aware that learning involves moments of pain and faltering, and give meaning to these students' struggles. Ruddock (2000) states that school improvement will occur if we look at schools from the student's perspective and actively involve students in their education. Ignoring this has caused disastrous results:
"Pupils are observant and have a rich but often untapped understanding of processes and events; ironically, they often use their insights to devise strategies for avoiding learning, a practice which, over time, can be destructive of their progress." (page 81)

Despite these bleak outlooks, learning does occur on a daily basis in schools. The question is, can the quality of this learning be improved? Fearless learning is learning for the joy of learning, exploring numerous possibilities without concern about failure in order to be able to create the best possible solution, undertaking consistently more difficult problems. Developing such qualities of passion, creativity, motivation, and willingness to face challenges in learners can positively influence the learning that is occurring in classrooms. Fortunately, research demonstrates that there are numerous possible methods to incorporate fearless learning practices in the classroom.

Training Teachers

One of the most important places to start is with the methodology used to train teachers. Institutions that train and certify teachers do not usually prepare them to create classroom environments where dialogue, reflection, and inquiry are both valued and practiced. These institutions usually employ experts to present knowledge and develop skills through lecture. When teacher preparation is based on a transmission model of learning, a major problem for teachers is how to teach in a manner that they have seldom if ever experienced (Novick, 1996).

Even teachers who realize they want to incorporate different methods of teaching experience problems. Leat (1993) describes the issues faced by one student teacher who was an effective lecturer, but who wanted to become a better facilitator. This individual made a conscious effort to develop these skills during a practicum, but noted that this was difficult to do; the teacher constantly wanted to tell the students the answers rather than let them struggle to reach the same conclusion. This is understandable, as it is human nature to try and assist someone who is experiencing problems. Teachers are caring individuals who want the best for the students in their charge; however, providing students with easy answers can often be more detrimental to their development. These students will not be allowed the experience of surviving failure, which can lead to the development of confidence in one's problem-solving abilities and independence. It is important that teachers allow students to try to perform and master tasks, talk about how they did this, share ideas and thoughts with other students. This type of approach leads to the development of a community of learners, where "learners will be more willing to try new tasks, new ways of telling and new ways of asking because they know each other well and trust each other" (Beigel, 1997). Teachers need to be allowed to develop professional judgement that assists them to maintain a hands-off approach until their help is really needed. This is a skill that can only be developed through practice.

Classroom management is an ever-present concern, however, in recent times, it has become more synonymous with maintaining discipline and order at the expense of discussion and inquiry. Teachers need to cultivate an ability to recognize "good noise", which results from learners who are discussing their learning experiences. The teacher is responsible for creating an environment conducive to learners discussing issues without having fully developed answers in place, where exploration of how the knowledge being discussed "fits" into the world. This can be facilitated by providing learners with activities that allow for inherently different views to be held on the same topic, with the teacher acting as a guide and not as the dispenser of knowledge (Beigel, 1997). Allowing students to carry out these types of activities in pairs or small groups will increase cooperative learning, reducing the competitive pressure on students to achieve. This not only allows for a greater development of a positive-self image for students, it allows learners to manipulate learning at their own pace. Cooperative learning facilitates the exchange of ideas, which is a catalyst to further exploration, experimentation, and the cultivation of a healthy sense of curiosity (Hawkes, 1992).

Structure of Learning

The way that learning is structured can also have a large impact on student motivation. Burns (1998) theorizes that if a learner perceives a manageable gap between what is to be learned and the learner's present base of knowledge, and if the target learning is perceived as relevant and valuable to the learner, that a strong internal tension-to-learn will develop.
"Stealing a principle of physics to make our point, we contend that a learner at rest remains at rest until some activating force energizes that person. Stated differently, a learner in his or her current state is typically tensionless. In absence of self-activation on the part of the prospective learner, building tension-to-learn becomes the task of the experiential educator." (page 142)

Burns suggests that either articulating objectives at the beginning of an exercise or activity or confronting learners with a problem that they cannot readily solve will alert them to the fact that there is a gap in their knowledge. Associating the learning with requirements in careers or identifying role models who possess the knowledge or skills being taught will help learners see the value of the knowledge. Students will find learning fun, as the realization that a gap is being closed is a pleasurable sensation. However, teachers must be cautious when exposing gaps in students' knowledge. Gaps that are too great will be seen as unattainable, resulting in learned helplessness rather than curiosity, while gaps that are too small will create apathetic learners as there is little or no challenge in filling this type of gap.

Experiential learning, including games and simulations, can be not only motivating, but very effective in developing exploration and experimentation. This can be challenging for teachers to incorporate into classroom practices, as there is a great deal of ambiguity involved in these types of activities. While the teacher can identify the learning objectives and the potential outcomes of these activities, students have a wide range of avenues of exploration open to them, avenues over which the teacher has limited control. However, encouraging students to formulate their own problems is more beneficial that offering a steady stream of answers to questions that students have not posed for themselves (Swann, 1998). In order to encourage students to ask meaningful questions, generate alternative solutions, appreciate a variety of viewpoints and develop multiple intelligences, a certain amount of ambiguity and uncertainty are not only inevitable, but necessary for good teaching (Novick, 1996).

Another positive resource is the incorporation of technology into the classroom. Because of its nature as a faceless medium, technology allows students who are unsure of their abilities to practice, take chances, make mistakes, all without the perceived judgement of the classroom setting. These resources allow students to work at their own pace, and to spend as much or as little time on a lesson as the individual needs. This element of control has a significant impact on self-confidence, both in increasing it as well as preventing significant decreases. If the student understands the content being presented, he or she is able to work through it faster than expected, boosting the feeling of confidence in the student's abilities. More importantly, if the student is experiencing problems understanding the material being studied, he or she is able to continue to work through the content matter, review the digital video, or attempt to answer as many questions or problems as necessary. Because this is done anonymously, the student is competing only with himself, and does not develop a diminished sense of ability resulting from competition with other students.

Realizing that no two learners learn in a similar fashion, teachers need to bring a flexible approach to the classroom. Once students feel that they are able to apply different methods to solving problems that are logical to them, students will develop greater confidence and ownership for their work. Teachers should bolster these efforts by encouraging students to try and generate as many different solutions to a question as possible and to spend time discussing not only answers to questions but also the mistakes that were made by students when trying to arrive at a solution. Students need to see that it is acceptable to make mistakes as long as they can apply what they learned from the process and try to solve the problem again. This mirrors the real world more accurately; how often does one encounter a situation where only one try is allowed to generate a solution? More often than not, one makes an attempt to come up with a solution, evaluates the results, and if necessary, continues the problem solving process until a suitable answer is arrived upon. This revision process can be incorporated into classroom work by allowing students to use course notes and texts to make corrections to assignments and tests or to take re-tests. Working through this process, students see that mistakes are unavoidable if one wants to learn, and that action, any action, towards solving a problem is better than being frozen in inaction due to uncertainty (Izen, 1999).


Throughout the majority of research related to the development of an atmosphere of fearless learning in the classroom, the role of the teacher is paramount. Regardless of whether it involves enhancing student self-esteem, developing an environment of cooperation, increasing student motivation, or encouraging student to learn from their mistakes, the teacher plays an integral part in ensuring the successful outcome of these efforts. The irony of this situation, is that in order to be truly effective, the teacher must relinquish the starring role in this drama, and allow the student to assume the lead. In order to become truly fearless, students need to be able to work in an environment that allows them to explore all possible solutions to a problem or situation, and know that this is not only tolerated, but whole-heartedly accepted.
"If they let themselves be used by their students in a variety of ways as their needs change, teachers will be more successful in enabling learning with a minimum of resistance." (Hawkes, 1992, page 100)

Fearless learning offers several conundrums: leadership through the allowance of yourself to be used, success through a process of failure, joy through an avenue of pain. None of the methods discussed earlier are particularly earth shattering in their genius. Few, if any, are particularly difficult to implement in a classroom setting. The challenge in creating an atmosphere of fearless learning in the classroom is in shifting current perceptions of the role of teachers and students in the learning process. It can be an arduous process; however, attempting to carry out this type of change can help to produce one of the greatest rewards of fearlessness - freedom.

Contact the Author


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