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Failure is
Key to STEM
Success

Why pushing for perfection hinders STEM learning.

Our education system has a perfection problem. There is an expectation that students must get everything right the first time. This is especially true for girls, who attribute failure to ability, rather than boys who blame it on circumstance. Similarly, parents are expected to have a blueprint of the steps their kids need to take to flourish in every career. God forbid parents who work in fields outside of STEM find themselves raising children who want to be engineers. The pressure is on to have all the answers before kids ask them, or know how to help build a robot at a moment’s notice.

In a lot of situations, STEM education rewards flawlessness. The kids with the most impressive projects win the science fair or the best grade. But in reality, getting ahead in STEM fields is about failing and finding out what caused that failure. Progress is made every time something doesn’t work because you’ve answered a question you didn’t know the answer to before. “Does this approach pay off? No? Great, now I can try something else.” You’re smarter for every defeat you face.

Creating a Collaborative Classroom

Putting this mindset into play requires ways of learning that allow for trial and error. The Department of Education has laid out an approach that reflects this in the STEM 2026 report. This report recommends methods that incorporate “intentional play.” The report explains that games like Minecraft where players work with each other in an immersive environment are effective tools of teaching problem solving. Rather than focusing on mistakes, students have opportunities to work together and make the world stronger piece by piece in a way that’s not intimidating. “These types of activities help develop growth mindsets rather than fixed mindsets among children and youth,” the report says. “Students with growth mindsets recognize that intelligence and talents are not static but can be developed through perseverance and hard work.” Effective STEM education in the future will promote creativity over perfection, and praise effort rather than innate ability. In fact, girls have been known to respond better to phrases like “You worked really hard on this project” rather than “You’re so intelligent” because it measures the work itself, rather than attributing it to a natural born quality.

Knowing Parental Influence

This idea of failure as a means to success takes pressure off parents, too. Parents who struggle with STEM fields like math and science can feel like they’re not providing the tools their young girls need, but that’s not the case. Parents who openly discussed being “bad at math” while trying to help daughters with their homework actually deterred their daughters from pursuing STEM fields because they felt they’d also be bad at those subjects. This also increased anxiety around STEM, and kids consequently did worse in school.

Instead, what proved more effective was letting the girls do homework on their own without any input from parents. This allowed students to arrive at solutions independently and reduced the anxiety for both parents and girls. Ultimately, this is also a more realistic problem solving
method.

Failure is simply a result of taking a risk. Though it may be a hard journey at times, as Nobel Prize winning physicist Marie Curie said, “I was taught that the way of progress was neither swift nor easy.” So go forth, and fail; it’s the only way to grow.

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