Friday, June 14, 2013

Reflection after Hearing Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed, and Thinking about Failure

     This past Tuesday I was fortunate to hear Paul Tough, New York Times Magazine reporter/editor and author of How Children Succeed: Grit, Character, and the Hidden Power of Character, speak at the Independent Schools Association of the Southwest heads of school conference. (Even cooler: I got to meet and introduce him!) He is a an excellent speaker, and I appreciated how he boiled the book down into 45 packed minutes of presentations (sans PowerPoint or Prezi, a nice change) without notes before taking questions.
     Because I've read the book and had reviewed my notes, his talk didn't provide much new information--except for one great point. Of course, I find it great because it helped me figure out how to articulate an idea I have been struggling to express properly.
     For those of you who may not have read the book, here is the basic premise. We have the traditional view that success comes from intelligence and basic cognitive skills. However, research and anecdote shows that success depends more on other non-cognitive skills such as perseverance, curiosity, conscientiousness, optimism, and self-control--qualities related more to character. Tough delineates the link between childhood adversity/stress--with a particular focus on poverty--and later life success. Ideally, one would have both the necessary cognitive and non-cognitive skills.
     Tough's point which really jumped out at me is that he believes in our society we have "an adversity gap." By this he means we have too many children who suffer tremendous adversity every day of their lives--poverty, homelessness, abuse and other ills--and those who experience almost none. Extremes, yes; but I began thinking about all the talk about allowing kids to experience failure in schools that is tied to calls for innovation.
     I have no problem with the philosophy underlying this notion. However, I believe, as Tough's term "adversity gap" suggests, that we need to figure out the sweet spot. To invoke Aristotle, we have to determine the virtue that lies at the middle of two vices. As is often the case, we jump to extremes and invokes points such as Edison's about not really failing 10,000 times or Ideo's "fail fast, fail often." Yet those are adults, who have established their identities and formed their characters. So much of the educational conversation these days focuses on failure and the need for it. Yet one thought keeps nagging at me: Do we really want children to experience failure very often?
     Part of my concern comes from the word failure. It's a loaded, powerful word, full of psychological barbs. Some argue that we need to soften the word, and that strikes me as a rather quixotic notion. Plus I believe we should keep the word for true failures that deserve it.
     I keep coming back to Vygotsky's notion of the Zone of Proximal Development, which allows students to work at levels which allow them to experience the right degree of success but also struggle until an adult intercedes at right moment. It strikes me that's what we want. For students to stumble, trip, fall, then get back up. When this happens while a toddler is learning to walk, we don't call it a failure. I'm not sure why we would with any form of learning.

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