The Power of Letting Students Figure it Out

My daughter lowered her eyes, looked at me, and said, “I can’t do it.”

I looked back and asked her again to put one foot on the board, push off with her other foot, and then put that foot on the board when she was moving.

She was being a typical six-year old who was trying to learn how to ride a skateboard.

“No”, she said. “I’m not doing this anymore. Can you push me?”

It would have been easy for me to help her get both feet on the board and give her a push to get her started. But I had already done that, and now after guiding her through the process (and almost falling myself while demonstrating) it was time for her to keep trying if she wanted to make any progress.

I told her “no” and asked for her to try again, this time focusing on getting a good push so she could be moving when she put her foot back on the board.

She was visibly upset. She knew that I could help her out. I knew that I could help her out. But in her mind she didn’t see the bigger picture. She didn’t realize that only by trying (and failing) herself, would she ever be able to ride a skateboard without my help.

The Teaching Dilemma

As parents, and teachers, we have a continual dilemma with our students and children. We have this same dilemma when we are helping colleagues or others in the workplace as well.

There will be many times when you can easily help someone achieve a certain level of success by doing the work for them. For our children, this can be holding their hands while they learn to walk. For our students, this can be giving a formulaic graphic organizer for writing an essay.

We have the choice to allow for failure and provide support…or do it for them and make it easier on both of us.

Jessica Lahey wrote an article in 2013 on “Why Parents Need to Let Their Children Fail” that went on to say:

This is what we teachers see most often: what the authors term “high responsiveness and low demandingness” parents.” These parents are highly responsive to the perceived needs and issues of their children, and don’t give their children the chance to solve their own problems. These parents “rush to school at the whim of a phone call from their child to deliver items such as forgotten lunches, forgotten assignments, forgotten uniforms” and “demand better grades on the final semester reports or threaten withdrawal from school.”

In the study mentioned by Lahey (read it here) it describes the problem that over-parenting has on our children, and the impact it causes in the learning process.

I’d ask the question if we are too guilty of “over-teaching” and enabling students in the learning process so that they lean on the help of adults, instead of figuring it out themselves.

The Gift of Failure

Lahey’s new book, The Gift of Failure, is a must read for teachers and parents. In my few interactions with Lahey I’ve seen a parent and middle school teacher who understands what our role is (and isn’t) as adults in our children’s lives.

Most importantly, this book offers some critical research on why letting students figure it out is better for them in the moment, in their future, and in their understanding of what learning can look like. In fact, letting our children “figure it out” on their own is one of the most empowering ways to give them ownership of their lives and learning path.

So many people have endorsed this book, but I wanted to share two reviews that jumped out to me as an educator and parent:

“Lahey offers one of the most important parenting messages of our times: Unless we allow our children to learn how to take on challenges, they won’t thrive in school and in life. Her extremely helpful book tells her story, compiles research, and provides hundreds of doable suggestions.” Ellen Galinsky, author of Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs

“‘Failure-avoidant’ parenting would seem, on the surface, to be synonymous with good parenting. Children stay safe, get into good colleges, and seem happier, at least in the moment. Debut author Lahey proposes, however, that parents will ultimately serve their children better by allowing them to stand on their own abilities and experience the occasional failure.[…]  Lahey has many wise and helpful words like these—ones that any parent can and should embrace.”Publishers Weekly 

For me, it’s a must read. If only because it helped me feel “ok” about situations like the one I described earlier.

After we finished our short back and forth conversation, my daughter hopped on the skateboard and took off down our driveway. She got both feet on the skateboard and was moving fast. Then…almost like out of a movie, she tried to stop and flew off the back of the board.

I tried to play off the fall by congratulating her by getting both feet on the board. It didn’t help. She was upset, and blamed me for the fall off the board. But the next day she was back on now trying to figure out how to stop. Learning, it seems, is contagious. As long as we let them go through the entire process and support along the way as best we can.

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  • Well said AJ,
    Those of with the good fortune of being around young children know there is a magical age between 18 months and three years old when toddler want to try to do things for themselves. I remember my own sons saying, “Let me try.” and “I can do it myself.” Erikson was had this pegged (, but it would seem autonomy has no age limitations or requirements. There are tumbles and scrapes along the way, but the learning and growth that occur more than make up for the failures. We’ve all seen the Thomas Edison and Michael Jordan examples of countless failures prior to their ultimate successes. It’s good to remember the everyday successes that we often miss because we’re too close to the trees. Thanks for this reminder, and for this forum to talk about it. Bob

    • AJ Juliani says:

      That is such a good point about the Thomas Edison and Michael Jordan examples. We should be sharing more examples of what is happening right now to people who are not famous. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Bob!

  • John Bennett says:

    Absolutely believe learners at any age must be allowed to fail (encouraged to push the boundary of their comfort zone) in order to learn better and more quickly. Yes, we need to encourage them – without taking over from them. AND we need to help them by facilitating their development of skills important to progressing – WHEN THEY ASK US TO FACILITATE THEM!!! Just like dictating what to do, doing the same with ‘how’ to do anything will just as likely be ignored or worse…

    Can’t wait to check out the new Lahey book!!!

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Lahey’s book is so powerful because it is something we’ve all seen as teachers, parents, and learners ourselves. Failure is starting to become a term used more widely in a positive light, but I believe you hit it correct when you said we must encourage them without take over from them. Thanks for the comment!

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