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.