Scientific history has a lot of eureka moments—from Archimedes’ bath to Newton’s apple—but the scientific process entails a lot of false starts that are vital to the advancement of science. Newton was wrong about two little things—time and space. Yet we would never consider Newton a failure. His flawed model led to Einstein’s incredible breakthroughs.

Regular folks have a glorified view of the pursuit of scientific research. They believe that science is organised and structured by rules when facts are gathered for research; this is far from the truth. Science is often eccentric, filled with twists, undertaken in uncharted territories, with lots of wrong turns, bogus findings, and the intermittent remarkable success.

Contrary to popular belief, this is a good thing! Scientific research is based upon trial and error; with this, there is no guarantee of success, as it inexorably leads to a hefty dose of failure.

In fact, scientists all through history have used failure to guide the scientific process, viewing mistakes as an indispensable part of research.

Now how do we pass this through to our beloved children; our students?

Ngozi was an A student who excelled in all her academic work. She always won prizes at the end of the school year and loved the sweetness of winning.

Seated in the auditorium, in the middle of her classmates, she loved the sound of her name being called over the speaker system. All necks craned in her direction, with audible mumbles of ‘she again’! It excited her blood. She was determined to win the overall best student when it was time for graduation.

That was her ultimate goal, the culmination of four years of sweat and perseverance. She had easily made it every year on the Dean’s list and was favoured to graduate Summa Cum Laude (1st Class.) For her, graduating with that distinction wasn’t an option. No one of merit ever finished second. That would simply be a defeat. Failure was not something she was accustomed to or prepared to deal with.

Then Richard transferred to her school. He was par excellence personified. In her mind, however, Ngozi knew the competition would be tough. It was to be all or nothing. Her parents certainly wouldn’t congratulate her on getting second place.

Thoughts of failure inundated her every waking thought and she quickly became her own worst enemy. With each passing day she grew filled with doubts about her own abilities.

Almost all of science might be considered failure, because scientific discoveries are continually being worked upon. Scientists progress from failure to failure as they move toward success in the short-term, knowing that there is a proclivity to be proven incorrect yet again.

The fear of defeat insidiously crept into her resolve and she felt defeated already. She the constant victor had become the trounced scholar. On graduation day, she numbly stared as Richard delivered the Best Student’s speech. Failure, by default nature, was a very bitter pill to swallow.

Ngozi had become wiser without knowing it. Previously, she had known only how to win, but now she had also experienced the bitterness of defeat. This would prove to be a very valuable for her over time.

She would go on to become a researcher working in a teaching hospital, writing papers, making presentation at conferences, and publishing books. She became a fore-runner in her projects and was known to always perservere through difficulties. All of these would have been impossible without the lesson she had learnt at college.

Although the story of Ngozi is a made up one, yet it is quite familiar. Far too often children are frozen into inaction by a deep-seated fear of failure. The truth, though, is that wisdom grows with the number of attempts one makes, not merely the number of successes. Scientists have knows this wisdom since forever, as attested to by Thomas Edison when referring to his work with light bulbs.

Scientific history has a lot of eureka moments—from Archimedes’ bath to Newton’s apple—but the scientific process entails a lot of false starts that are vital to the advancement of science. Newton was wrong about two little things—time and space. Yet we would never consider Newton a failure. His flawed model led to Einstein’s incredible breakthroughs.

Almost all of science might be considered failure, because scientific discoveries are continually being worked upon. Scientists progress from failure to failure as they move toward success in the short-term, knowing that there is a proclivity to be proven incorrect yet again.

There is nothing to be feared in being wrong. How do we translate this to our children? How do we make failure a positive outcome to them? We need to create an environment where failure, as a step towards improvement, is merely a motivation to keep going. To give your children the ability to be tenacious, teach them how to fail without fear, because they will unavoidably fail at something someday.

Scientists have learnt that they are not their failed experiments, though the outcomes of those experiments might be considered as such. They are able to separate themselves from scientific outcomes. We should teach our children the same principle.

The Irish poet Samuel Beckett wrote these lines that echo this sentiment succinctly: “EVER TRIED. EVER FAILED. NO MATTER. TRY AGAIN. FAIL AGAIN. FAIL BETTER.”

The next time you are faced with failure, get up and say; “Let’s do that again!” After all, the best way to convey the message of successful failure to our children is by example.

Adetola Salau, an advocate of STEM education, public speaker, author, and social entrepreneur, is passionate about education reform.

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