What failure means these days

Screen Shot 2013-10-06 at 11.56.33 AMA recent Twitter chat included the following exchange with Mark Crotty, head of school at St John’s Episcopal in Dallas.

Mark blogs at To Keep Things Whole and I am a frequent visitor. He used it in a post entitled: Failure of Promoting Failure  that you can read at the link.

He alerted me to the post in a tweet. This is what I wrote in response:

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 Failing is Essential ) – 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 an 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 providing the opportunity to engage.

See you on Twitter!

– Josie


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