Should We Be Teaching How to Fail to Our Students?




Lately I’ve been pondering the concept of failing and its importance in our social and emotional development as human beings. I’m not a social scientist mind you but after 26 years in education I’ve seen many trends come and go. One such trend that seems to be exploding on the scene in contemporary society is the notion that failure is something our children do not need to experience if at all possible. I for one used to give “extra-credit” in my science classroom. Three groups of students emerged from this policy. The largest group was those who did little or nothing until the last minute. The next group was made up of those who gave some effort but soon recognized that the bail out of extra-credit points could save their grade. Then there was the smallest percentage of students who gave it everything they had and by THEIR standards came up short and wanted more and different opportunities to demonstrate what they learned in class. GRIT!

In 1994 I was part of a group of Tipton community school educators who began to study the concept of total quality management through Deming’s work and quality schools as Glasser would describe them. In a nutshell it was suggested that most of us want to do quality work. What may influence that desire and subsequent outcome are many internal and external factors that are both within and out of our locus of control. Armed with a new approach in my science classroom I employed a concept that simply promised kids this. If they would do the few things I asked them to do in a quality manner, I assured them that their final grade would reflect their efforts. It worked! I was getting great work from all kids (OK except for Jeff.). After a little training, I no longer had to accept low quality work, half-hearted efforts and I pitched the whole extra-credit thing. Kids knew I expected quality work and my promise to them in terms of better grades was evidence in the scatter grams we prepared of their performance. In fact, students were more engaged in class, seeking my help on homework and generally checking in with me to ensure their work was on track. (Except for Jeff!) What was my take away from this experiment with my students? PERSERVERANCE!

Recently I was visiting with some younger teachers and I told them that I felt my generation of parents (Turning 50 soon!) “screwed up” a generation of kids. In the early 90’s when our kids were in or entering elementary school, building self-esteem, positive praise ratios of 10:1, and child-centered parenting were all the rage. Parents were encouraged to praise their child for the most basic of accomplishments and even substandard performance in school or in their daily chores at home. A positive self-esteem after all was the key to happiness and fulfillment in life’s pursuits. Phrases such as, “Try it again”, “Not good enough”, and even “No” were deemed too harsh for the ears and inner constitution of our children. Every first try became the final product regardless of quality or outcome. Any failure a child experienced was the result of poor or inadequate planning by the adult(s). Parents, educators, coaches, mentors and even babysitters seemed to take ownership of a child’s failures and reshaped the “game” in order to ensure success for all.

During my tenure as the middle school principal in Spencer (IA), The Search Institute was sharing their 40 developmental assets and we chose to share this information with our parent group. One evening we decided to put our own children under the microscope to see how we were doing as parents. Whoa! Big mistake my friends! Or so I thought. Best I could do was 26 out of 40. Did that mean that Jill and I were lousy parents? Were we, the schools and our community falling short in our collective responsibility in helping parents raise their children? The answer? “NO!” In our post evaluation discussion, most of us determined that many of the assets our children where lacking formed the foundation of a phrase that seemed to sum our point of view. “You don’t get 100% of what you want or need 100% of the time”.

Life itself is unfair. If by fair we mean that our life experiences should only be positive and constructive then yes, it’s safe to say life IS unfair. But where would humankind be without the myriad failures that helped drive or motivate men and women to find the answers to improve our lives when faced with challenging situations and inevitable failures?

In an email and follow-up article I sent to parents, the author suggested that GRIT was a much overlooked character trait. We are all familiar with the traditional character traits of trustworthiness, honesty, respect, responsibility, citizenship, caring and even fairness. While I cannot argue against these at all, I tend to see these as moral character traits and wonder about the school’s role in delivering some of these moral lessons. GRIT is, as the author suggested, a performance character trait. Recently I asked some teachers, “Do we teach grit?”, and “Can we teach grit?” Within seconds the concepts of “failure” and “perseverance” were brought into our discussion as being inexplicably linked to grit. My next comments are sure to raise a few eyebrows and perhaps the ire of some.

Here are my questions.

  1. “Have we created a generation of children who are ill-equipped to handle failure?”
  2. Have we as parents been too quick to remove any hurt and frustration in our children’s lives?
  3. Do we now have a generation of children incapable of demonstrating the resiliency and coping skills necessary to fix or solve a problem they themselves have created?
  4. Have we done so much to protect our children from any form of hurt, distress or failure that they’ve grown to believe that any work they do, regardless of quality is acceptable?
  5. And finally, are students learning that a poor grade is not something the teacher “gave me”, rather it’s a grade “I earned” and ultimately something the child must they must fix?

The ultimate goal I believe we all share for our children is for them to be people of good character, happy and fulfilled in their life path, and productive citizens in our global society. But I also believe, as stated by Dominic Randolph in the article The Character Test, that in order for our children to succeed…”they first need to learn how to fail.”

It’s better in the middle!


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