Why it’s not only OK but necessary for kids to fail


I don’t want my own children, or any student, to be demoralized or feel like failures…but it’s not the act of failing itself that makes our children feel that way – it’s the connotation that we, as a nation and as an educational system, have placed on it that makes them feel that way.

Think of a toddler learning how to walk.  At first they stumble, tumble and fall constantly.  Those are failures of the ability to walk.  But do we shame them?  Do we put them in “special classes”?  Do we make them feel like they’ll never learn how to walk?  No, of course not!  We say “That’s OK…try again!”  But at what point do we stop treating failures as steps towards success and treat them as shameful?  And more importantly, I think, why do stop?

At my own 10 year-old son’s parent teacher conference last week, I requested that he be allowed to move at his own pace in math (he did it in his class last year and it made such a difference on his attitude, motivation and drive).  The teacher had a concern that he doesn’t want my son to get frustrated…he doesn’t want to have him move faster and get frustrated and get turned off to math.  But instead, I told the teacher that I WANT him to get frustrated.  I want him to “hit the wall” and learn the need to bounce back, the need to study, the need to seek our resources and help far sooner than he would if he just went along with the flow of the average classroom.  I want him to learn those skills sooner rather than later!

I recently read Amanda Ripley’s “The Smartest Kids in the World – And How They Got There.”  It’s a most eye-opening, thought-provoking book of the differences among several educational systems in the world and what produces learners with the necessary skills…and what doesn’t.

We’ve heard CEO’s, entrepreneurs and inventors over the years talk about how many times they failed, were told “no”, produced something that didn’t work, or otherwise stumbled before they succeeded.  What gave them the ability to continuing despite those failures and set-backs?  Ripley discusses it in her book:

“Something else matter just as much, and sometimes more, to kids’ life chances.  This other dark matter had more to do with attitude than the ability to solve a calculus problem.  In one study of US eighth graders, for example, the best predictor of academic performance was not the children’s IQ scores – but their self-discipline….those skill sets had more to do with motivation, empathy, self-control and persistence.  These were core habits, workhorse traits sometimes summed up by the old-fashioned word character.  The problem with the word character was that it sounded like something you couldn’t change.  But these same researchers discovered something wonderful: Character was malleable, more malleable in fact than IQ.  Character could change dramatically and relatively quickly – for better or for worse – from place to place and time to time.” (Page 120)

So what does character have to do with failure?  Everything!

“Kids in Poland were used to failing, it seemed.  The logic made sense.  If the work was hard, routine failure was the only way to learn.  ‘Success’ as Winston Churchill once said ‘is going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.’  Tom has failed math, too, back in eighth grade in Pennsylvania.  But he hadn’t experienced that failure as normal or acceptable.  He’d experienced it as a private trauma.  Failure in American schools was demoralizing and to be avoided at all costs.  American kids could not handle routine failure, or so adults thought.” (Page 72)

“By definition, rigorous work required failure; you simply could not do it without failing.  That meant that teenagers had the freedom to fail when they were still young enough to learn how to recover.” (Page 117)

We’re worried about the self-esteems of children in this country.  I’m a parent…I get that.  Like I said, I don’t want any child demoralized.  But the concept of refusing to let our children fail is not the right way to go about it – especially in the long term!

I do want our children challenged to the point where they fail.

If they never reach a point where they fail, how will we know how high they can go?

If they never experience failure in a safe and nurturing setting, how will they learn to be resilient in a less nurturing setting (the big, bad, scary “real world”?)

So how can we do it in a safe and nurturing setting?  I believe that student-paced mastery learning is one of the best ways possible.  This type of classroom requires a shift in the way everyone involved thinks about what goes on in a classroom.  Work is not “busy work” – it’s to learn.

Quizzes are not for the teacher to prove who knows what they’re doing and who doesn’t – to classify or judge students – they are a tool to judge what each student needs next.  Quizzes and assessments in a student-paced mastery learning class take on a whole different connotation.  They are not the end of learning – they are a step in the cycle of learning and formative assessment.  Students know that if they fail they are not doomed to repeated failings because the class moved on without them.  They know that the student and teacher will look at where they are and decide what’s the best next step to take to get them to where they need to be.  It’s not a shameful experience – it’s just like saying to the toddler when they fall down “It’s OK…try again…I know you can do it!”

Even if it’s not in a student-paced mastery setting, even if it’s in a more traditional classroom structure – I still think we can (and must) shift our country’s and our educational system’s views on failure.  What about you?

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