An Edisonian Twist on Failure

To Thomas Edison, getting the wrong answer didn't mean he failed. Learn how to take this approach in the classroom and help students learn from challenges.


Why do we assume getting the wrong answer is a failure? Thomas Edison didn’t think that way. He famously said this about the discovery of the lightbulb: “I have not failed – I’ve just found 10,000 (ways) that won’t work.”

Sometimes teachers are quick to give students a step-by-step process without giving them the freedom to get the wrong answer and try again. While there is some benefit to helping students when they are overwhelmed, teachers can balance helping with challenging using a metric called the zone of proximal development (ZPD). The ZPD refers to the range of abilities a student can perform with assistance but not yet independently. For a student, the ZPD lies between ridiculously easy and frustratingly difficult. Students should be allowed to experience the upper limits of the ZPD to understand their potential, especially in STEM settings.

Scientists must embrace failure to succeed. If you talk to a scientist, they will confirm that 99% of their day is spent failing. In an Edisonian approach, scientists would also tell you that they learn something new every day.

We sat down with researcher Pilar de la Puente, PhD, to explore how we can learn from failure and how to motivate students to work through challenges.

Dr. de la Puente studies the environment of cancer cells. Early in her career, she experienced failure and uses what she learned then even today. When Dr. de la Puente started her doctorate program, she was tasked with growing a new cell type that no one had previously worked with. Despite following the normal procedure for cell growth, the cells died or become contaminated after a few days.

Her lab group immediately chalked it up to her inexperience working with cells. Despite others dismissing her, she insisted that her technique was not to blame. She scoured the internet searching for possible solutions and finally discovered the environment was the cause of the failure. Rather than accepting what her team was telling her, she searched for solutions to the problems she faced. That determination led to her success and taught her valuable skills that she now uses in her own laboratory.

It is through failure that we grow in our understanding of the world. Allowing students to struggle or fail can build resilient and confident learners who later become successful adults. Teachers and parents have an opportunity to incorporate a growth mindset to help kids understand that their abilities can be developed through hard work and persistence.

More from Thomas Edison on Failure and Success
“The three great essentials to achieve anything worthwhile are: Hard work, Stick-to-itiveness and Common sense.”

“Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

“Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”

“Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results. I know several thousand things that won’t work.”