Which is more important to education: success or failure?

In an interview, I was asked this question, “Is success the most important thing?” I turned to the woman who was interviewing me and smiled

“Of course it is important,” I told her, “But it is also important to realize that mistakes are good things. They are learning opportunities.” Without dark, there can be no light. Without hell, there is no heaven. Without failure, one cannot feel the bliss that comes with success. Failure stings. It may even burn at times. However, burns of this nature will heal; the stinging will subside. If teachers do their job right, no scar will remain. The student will not shudder at the thought of another attempt again. The student will be ready to face her fear and, through successive approximations, finally master whatever seemed so challenging before. Together, teacher and student can celebrate those successes that seem like failures on the surface, but actually represent steps toward the mastery goal.

If every student “got” everything on the first try, our job would be so easy, correct? I invite you to read an article about a junior high school that knows better (Wilson, Corbett, & Williams, 2000). This school focuses on mastery in a way that allows for failure and then forces students to not give up. Students have to keep trying until they get at least a B on their work. A grade remains “in progress” until the student achieves that goal. They are not expected to do this alone, however. Teachers and peers work with them as they dust themselves off and try again. I told the interviewer, as I finished my thoughts, that this cliché is still around because it is so important to remember: The journey is just as important as the destination.


Wilson, B., Corbett, D., & Williams, B. (2000). A discussion on school reform–Case 1: All students learning at Granite Junior High. The Teachers College Record.

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