Friday, October 4, 2013

Failure of Promoting Failure

     For the past few years, we've heard much talk about failure in education. Not in the usual sense that our schools are failing, but in calls for all the reasons students need to experience failure. The calls seem particularly loud in the independent school world, where so many of our students are so success driven and have experienced little but that. I know people's intentions are in the right place. They want to help young people develop grit and resiliency and character. Qualities that will hep them succeed in life. No quarrels here. Still something has bothered me about how easily and loosely some commend this idea.
     The a few evenings ago I came across a Tweet from Josie Holford, the head at Poughkeepsie (NY) Day School. It resonated with me and led to this exchange:

I've never met Josie in person, but I have great respect for what I've seen her put out in social media. (A great example of the power of connectivity in the digital era!) We ended up favoriting each other's comments, and I've decided I need to try to articulate my concerns with "this whole failure trend." So I credit her for the prompt.
     First, we need to consider the word failure itself. It's a strong word, packed with negative connotations, suggestive of catastrophe no matter how much we may chant "failure isn't fatal." Words don't lose their power very easily. Let's rethink the language a bit and consider setbacks and misfires and missed attempts...possible replacements abound. And they likely are more in line with the mindset we want to promote. Some may say I'm being much too literal in how I am looking at the word. Perhaps. But language matters.
     Once we have done that, let's dig a bit deeper. Given the implications of failure, it certainly isn't conducive to learning. After all, I'm sure we can agree that failure--however handled--creates stress. And Rule #8 in John Medina's Brain Rules is "Stressed brains don't learn the same way" (p 169). He doesn't mean for the better. Yes, some stress can help. But Medina explains how stress "hurts declarative memory (things you can declare) and executive function (the type of thinking that involves problem-solving). Those, of course, are the skills needed to excel in school and business" (p 178). He adds, "Quite literally, severe stress can cause brain damage in the very tissues most likely to help your children pass their SATs" (179).
     You may be ready to dismiss my point by saying, "Yes, but he says 'severe stress.'" Sure. But don't you think children today feel stress from incredible pressure to succeed in very tangible and public ways? And we're throwing around the idea of failure as somehow good for them. I think that ramps up the stress more than it helps them deal with life's adversities.
     Plus I happen to believe that we learn better when we experience success. When we do something well, reflect on how we did it, rinse and repeat. Of course, part of that process necessitates considering what didn't work. It's much easier to do that when not sorting through what has been casually labeled a failure. The neurotransmitters most associated with the maintenance of mental health--serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine--are released ruing more positive activities. Meanwhile, the levels of adrenaline and cortisol released during stress can cause damage if the stress is chronic. More particularly, cortisol damages the cells of the hippocampus, crippling the ability to learn and remember.
     Please understand that I am not advocating taking it too easy on students. I believe kids like to jump for high bars. It's about what sort of learning experiences we create for them. Medina cites studies which show that "a certain amount of uncertainty can be good for productivity, especially for bright, motivated employees. What they need is a balance between controllability and uncontrollability. Slight feelings of uncertainty may cause them to deploy unique problem solving strategies" (188). I'd argue this holds true for students as well.
     Throughout that process we must be extremely careful about our words and our actions. If we aren't, the students are not the only ones who will have experienced failure. We will have failed them.

1 comment:

Josie Holford said...

Hi Mark:
Thanks for picking up on the conversation and taking it further.

I think what gets me in so many of the conversations around failure is the rather glib assumption that failing is somehow a moral virtue - a kind of character building exercise that’s free, nutritious and especially wholesome for children.

I know what people mean by grit - and it’s a good thing. But I can never quite get out of my mind that grit is something that needs to be removed from your eye or something that gets in your sandwich on the beach.

It's a kind of antidote to the "all shall have prizes” “trophies for all” and the shallowness of empty praise that undermines children’s learning and motivation. All those gold stars and the enthusiastic “good job” remarks that Carol Dweck’s research has shown inhibit the growth mind-set essential for success.

But to be fair to many of those who talk the “failure” game – and I count myself among them (see ) - mean a trial and error approach to learning.

Design thinking is really taking good root in many schools and that process involves problem seeking and solutions finding. It means piloting ideas, trying things out and discovering that things don’t always work first time and sometimes not at all.

Such a program is founded on a growth mind-set where every child sets ambitious horizons for success. It teaches brain neuroplasticity and knows that failures today do not dictate or preclude future achievements. It means an education that develops persistence and resilience where intellectual risk-taking, trial and error, mistakes and failure are signs of progress. What matters is how we move forward and the ends we pursue.

So when we glibly talk about children and failure maybe we should clarify what we actually mean. Do we mean a educational program that encourages problem finding and experimentation and risk on the route to solutions? Or do we mean setting kids up to experience character-building low grades?

MIT research suggests that we actually learn from our successes and should stop trying to learn from our mistakes. Jerome Bruner taught us: We want students to "experience success and failure not as reward and punishment but as information."

Children who fail in school frequently begin to see themselves as incompetent learners and learn to tune out. This is not because they lack grit and determination but because the challenges before them are not engaging, within their grasp or imbued with personal meaning.

So before we go on extolling the virtue of failing for other people and especially children we need to take a look at what it is we actually mean.

Are we expecting young learners to pick themselves up after repeated knockdowns that they experience as humiliation and inadequacy? Or are we engaging young learners with meaningful challenges and in the genuine spirit of trial and error, tinkering and purpose.

And if they then engage wholeheartedly – perhaps with some very ambitious challenge from which they learn so much but fail to accomplish their goal – do we then grade them? On what?

Thanks for starting the conversation and proving the opportunity to engage.

See you on Twitter!

- Josie