Failing soft

Two years ago, my son was ready to try riding a bike without training wheels for the first time. He was definitely less ready than his parents thought he was, but the training wheels were being destroyed. So, in the name of being cheap and not wanting to buy new training wheels, and actually thinking he was ready to give it a try, we went for it.

We dragged out the hand-me-down bike that had been sitting in our garage, popped on his helmet and said, “Let’s go.” Our anxious 5 year-old was reluctant, but willing enough to get on. I don’t know why, but I felt strangely confident going into this, despite a number of things going against me.

  1. I had never taught anyone to ride a bike.
  2. I was probably the worst of my five siblings at learning. (I still remember falling on my bike in slow motion, before my brother and aunt laughed hysterically at me. Looking back, I’m sure it was hysterical, but at the time, I just ended up in tears.)
  3. I also have no idea when I last rode a bike.

Despite all of this, I was ready to teach my son how to ride a bike. I am going to toot my own horn here for a minute. I made one of the best decisions I have ever made as a teacher. I pointed the bike up the hill and on the sidewalk. Maybe this is obvious to others, but here is why it was important. Up the hill meant there was no way he could go too fast and lose control as I chased behind screaming. On the sidewalk gave him grass on either side of the path. The second key coaching tip was this: “When you feel like you’re going to fall, steer into the grass. It will be a softer landing.”

I apologize for bragging here, but I am so happy that this worked out as well as it did. My son is typically very nervous about anything new and trying new things can easily lead to tears and frustration. I wanted him to learn to ride a bike, but expected some combination of tears, frustration, and a few weeks of attempts before this actually worked. I also realize that I may have gotten lucky that day – I’m a believer that most success needs luck, but without the right preparation, luck doesn’t do us much good.

Here is what I learned from that experience. Kids need the opportunity to Fail Soft. We hear a lot about failing fast and failing often, which I completely agree are keys to learning. Failing Soft is something I did not always consider as a teacher. Failing Soft to me is about providing a cushion for our students failing in the classroom. If they fail, where are they going to land? What are the costs if they don’t reach their goal?

In the case of my son, I knew he was going to fall, it was just a matter of when and where. The first time, I pushed and let go and he fell within 10 feet. The fact that he hit some grass and didn’t skin up his knee made it easier for him to get up and try again. The next time we made it a little further before falling. We repeated that process until he had biked up to his friends house, 3 houses away. By the end of an hour, he was biking excitedly for a hundred feet or so before losing balance, and we were all excited to try again the next day.

In the classroom, we need to know our students. How much risk are they willing to take? How much failure can they accept? If we know our students well, then we know how far we can push them. The next question is, how can I cushion their fall? Maybe it’s by creating a small challenge. Maybe it’s by giving them a partner, or a group to work with the first time through. Maybe it’s by letting them work alone so that no one can see their failings.

We are a month into school and I constantly think about how many new things we are asking students to do every day, every week, every month. I want to make sure I help our students fail soft and that our teachers consider different strategies when asking young children to try something for the first time (or even the second, third, or fourth time).

There is no way to keep our students from falling, or failing, but if we can break their fall a little bit, we can give them the confidence they need to keep going. We always say get back up and try again. My goal is to make getting back up and trying again a little easier.


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