Xiaodong Lin-Siegler On Failing Upward

Meet a scientist who studies how failure in the classroom can lead to success in life.

A woman (Xiaodong Lin-Siegler) standing and smiling at the camera wearing an elaborate patterned blazer.
Xiaodong Lin-Siegler is a professor of Cognitive Science in Education at
Columbia University. Courtesy Xiaodong Lin-Siegler.

Professor Lin-Siegler sees failure—in the classroom, doing research, and in life—as instrumental to future success. 

“I’m lucky to be studying something I experience a lot myself,” Lin-Siegler says. “If I wrote about what failures I’ve personally encountered, it would be a whole book.” 

In her 2016 study, titled “Even Einstein Struggled,” she found that after teaching high school students about Albert Einstein’s challenges (in both science and life) the students’ test scores improved compared to kids that were only taught about his successes. The study goes on to describe how fear of failure can be derived from the idea that some people are inherently more capable, associating science with the common image of a white, male “genius” that solves problems without effort or help. 

Following her curiosity, Lin-Siegler’s scientific mission is to better understand how we attribute meaning to failure, and how failure can be nurtured into motivation. Now, as a program director of Cognitive Science at Teachers College at Columbia University, she has been tirelessly working to unpack failure as an essential part of learning, and not a lack of talent. 

The work isn’t about preventing failure, but observing its behavior and influence with a close eye. Lin-Siegler experiments with the patterns in self-perception that inhibit students, rather than trying to force “success.” She’s all about understanding shortcomings, and how facing that knowledge is pretty powerful.

Real life can inspire research questions

As a scientist who studies what it takes to learn science, Lin-Siegler drew some of her research questions from her own life. 

When Lin-Siegler was nine, she was barred from school because of China’s Cultural Revolution. After she was able to return to school, she pursued an education that led her to the United States.

“I pushed just to get into college, and even that was filled with failure,” she says. “I was fired from my [work study] job in one week.”

After going from “barely seeing a book” at age 15 to becoming a full professor at Columbia University, Lin-Siegler started calling herself a scientist when she realized that she was able to systematically approach a key topic in educational success: the relationship between failure and motivation.

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