Purpose Educational organizations confront a number of failures along with successful practices. Although a potential learning source for organizations, failures encountered are not normally welcomed and utilized to improve future practices. However, the existing literature emphasizes that individuals and organizations can learn a lot from their failure by adopting a pragmatic understanding toward the concept of failure and implementing a learning-from-failure (LFF) approach in their practices. Drawing on these assumptions, the purpose of this study is to explore how school principals identify educational failures and implement an LFF approach in their managerial practices. Design/methodology/approach This study adopted a qualitative research paradigm. The research was conducted in a middle-sized city in Turkey. The data for the study came from individual semi-structured interviews conducted with 12 school principals. The interview data were coded and analyzed using a conceptual coding framework. Findings Findings indicated that school principals' definitions of failure are classified as learning related and nonlearning related. Failures were generally considered to be a learning opportunity rather than a complete loss, although principals' identification of important examples of failure varied across school levels. In operating an LFF approach at schools, certain limitations existed such as a lack of institutional policy and professional skills, heavy workload and limited autonomy. Originality/value This study attempted to explore domains of educational failures and the application of an LFF approach at educational organizations. The LFF approach has previously been studied and discussed in business organizations. This study applied the concept to the education field.