Ten Things Our Grandparents Got Right #3: They allowed us to fail

Final Part

Benefits of failure 

All of the factors mentioned in the first three segments of this posting series have contributed to the notion that risk is unacceptable in any form.  Failure, the constant companion of risk, is just as much of a pariah.  But they are both very necessary for healthy development.  David McClelland, of Harvard University Psychology Department, found that setting goals with a high possibility of failure – somewhere between 30 and 50% chance – actually helped highly motivated people to improve their skills.  His work in achievement and motivation earned him the APA’s Award for Distinguished Scientific Contributions.

 Over at Stanford, Dr Carol Dweck suggests that two different attitudes towards the concept of intelligence can have a huge effect on not only learning, but anxiety.  A ‘fixed’ mindset is one that is born of a belief that success and intelligence are innate:  statements like “You’re very bright” accentuate this belief.  Holders of this mindset are upset with the notion of failure, because it so obviously reflects on them as people, on the essential level.  The ‘growth’ mindset is different:  it assumes that success is the result of hard work, and therefore holders of this mentality fear failure much less:  they’ll just keep trying and learning as they go.  Obviously, these are the innovators and high achievers of our times; the ‘fixed’ mindset leads more often to anxiety and paralysis than any kind of growth or success.  You can see the two mindsets laid out in this graphic: 

Michael Jordan once said on the subject:  “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career, I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”  More famous “failures” are highlighted in this short video:

On an even more fundamental level, Gandhi reminds us that “Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.”  Or, more correctly, freedom does not exist under those circumstances.  And when freedom does not exist, there is no control over one’s future, a circumstance that psychologists point out is a big factor in the increasing levels of anxiety and depression in kids today.  In 2007, a group of 270 child psychologists from around the English-speaking Western world wrote an open letter to the Daily Telegraph suggested that the loss of unstructured play time was behind the “explosion in children’s diagnosable mental health problems”.  This seems to be supported by some research:  overprotective and controlling behaviour by parents might be the mechanism by which the transmission of anxiety from parent to child (well documented elsewhere) is effected.

Risk aversion is rampant in the education system today.  There are dozens of anecdotal examples from the Phys. Ed. Department where I work.  Some kid, against instructions, climbs one of those apparatuses in the gym that fold out for climbing, and falls off:  instant ad-hoc regulation from the Board, banning the use of the apparatus.  Apparently the dangers inherent in not listening to safety instructions are overshadowed by those in everyday physical objects.  A celebrity dies on a ski slope after hitting her head – and immediately, all students in the Board are required to wear helmets for all  outdoor winter activities, which means that the annual ESL field trip to go ice skating is cancelled, because the recent immigrants to Canada (many of them refugees) are often too poor to afford sports equipment.  These kids survived war zones, and now aren’t allowed outside without helmets.  What is the actual rate of injury or death on ski hills in Canada?  Who cares?  A celebrity died, so it could happen to anybody, right?  The list of acceptable activities in Gym class is steadily shrinking.  Statistics (otherwise known as facts) play no apparent role in Board decisions of this type; only gut feelings of fear and probable danger hold sway.  Some simple research would tell you how many times an injury has occurred during a particular activity; then, divide that into the number of students who have participated in the activity.  This should give you some idea of the risk.  The number will rarely be zero, but if the activity has benefits (such as generating camaraderie, self-confidence, cooperation, etc.) that are significant, it’s usually worth enduring some slight risk in order to participate.  As Dan Gardner says, saying that something could happen is a meaningless statement.  It’s the probability of that event happening which ought to guide our responses.  Though I must say that the risk of litigation over rare incidents is much higher than the risk of the incidents themselves!  This is really a problem, and ought to be considered more carefully.

 It need not be said that the perceived risk of the effects of failure on students is exaggerated, by parents and administrators, as well as by students themselves.  It is often presented as the End of Dreams:  a shut door to the future, equivalent in many cases to the loss of hope.  The amazing self-absorption of many of us in the field of education astounds me daily.  Every person reading this probably knows at least one high school dropout who went on to live a perfectly happy and productive life.  The entrepreneurial world is full of them:  Angelfire.com lists 755 notable elementary- and high-school-dropouts on what it claims is the most comprehensive list ever compiled on the subject; it includes 25 billionaires, 8 U.S. Presidents (that’s about 18% of the total number of Presidents ever!), 28 knighthoods, 55 bestselling authors, 10 Nobel Prize winners, and an astronaut.  The number is of course tiny compared to all the students who did graduate, but there are plenty of non-graduates who are living good, though non-spectacular lives all over the world.  The increased expectation for children to attend university in Canada has had some serious effects on schools and on society, according to James Côté and Anton Allahar, authors of Ivory Tower Blues

 In universities, as well as in high schools, it has led to remarkable grade inflation.  The Ontario Scholar bursary, awarded to students who graduate with an average of 80% or better, is now awarded to over 40% of all graduates, making it nearly meaningless.  Back in the 1960s, when it was conceived, only about 5% of students managed it.  At the same time, professors’ satisfaction with the knowledge base of undergraduates is steadily decreasing.  A big part of this is due to the sheer numbers of students attending university; attendance at postsecondary institutions has increased over 900% since the 1950s, making undergraduate students comprise about the same percentage of the population in 2004 as high school students did back in 1950.  (Ivory Tower Blues, p.26)  And with grade inflation comes credentialism, where a diploma or degree is seen as either an end in itself (and not the learning that earns the degree), or else a stepping stone to later employment or social success.  Neither of these takes into account that intrinsic motivation for learning, in other words, genuine, applied, and focused attention and interest in a subject, is the only real way that long-term brain mapping is accomplished (what we might call actual learning).  Goal-oriented practices such as focusing on diplomas or even on grades have been clinically shown to actually decrease success in academic pursuits (see Alfie Kohn’s article, “From Degrading to De-Grading” in High School Magazine , March 1999, among others.  Available at Alfiekohn.org).  The problem is that they make you focus beyond what you’re doing to the activity’s results and even beyond, to the consequences of those results.  It’s a distraction.  And our society is good at distraction.  Note that being focused on the present, that zen-like Eastern mindset, is once again absent from the Western picture.

 I have actually had a principal tell me that I was not “getting the big picture”, which to her meant the four-year career of a student through high school to a diploma.  She had no real answer to my suggestion that a “big picture” ought reasonably to include the long-term well-being of students once they leave our halls.  Teachers, whose understanding of the process of learning is generally considerable, are the only ones who seem not to be as affected by this anxiety — that said, there is an enormous amount of pressure on educators not to assign failing grades.

 The practice of “Social Promotion” is badly understood by those within and without the system of education.  It is based on studies which appeared to show a correlation between students who were held back a year and those who eventually drop out of the system.  But a basic understanding of the term ‘correlation’ would help to disentangle some of the angst:  ‘correlation’ does not imply ‘causation’.  That is, one might expect to find that students who are disengaged from the learning process or from the environment of school for reasons of predisposition, stresses at home, a lack of support, etc. are the ones who are most likely to both fail courses and eventually drop out altogether.  The one does not necessarily cause the other to happen.  And yet many students are passed by administrators (often over the objections of subject teachers) despite the fact that they have not mastered the material covered by the course, on the assumption that their self-image will be damaged.  This has snowballing effects up the various grades and into universities, where less and less often professors are reporting satisfaction with the skills and knowledge base of undergraduates.  Despite studies which have shown that the causal link between repeating a grade and dropping out is tenuous at best, it might be true that the social cost of failing a grade and being held back is real, at least to some degree.  There is a maelstrom of debate about this, of course, but even assuming it does exist, it would seem to me to be more of a problem with the whole process of segregating students by age in the first place, rather than with the question of whether or not they are going to be left behind by their peers.  And there are good indications that the practice of passing people who know that they do not deserve to pass creates problems in self-esteem, which good psychologists know has to be genuine and earned in order to be beneficial.   Or, as James   Côté explains, it’s a difference between self-esteem and self-efficacy:

“The problem with the feel-good pedagogy of self-esteem is that it leads to neglect of basic pedagogical principles of learning and progressive skill acquisition.  In contrast to rewarding everyone regardless of how well the job is done, when a student learns the rudiments and masters the elements of a skill or area of knowledge, that person also acquires a sense of self-efficacy [, ] a sense that one can accomplish things and that those things are under one’s control.  [It] is thus a form of personal agency […] fromthis experience follows a realistic sense of self-esteem, and this sense of self-esteem is reinforced with every efficacious experience.  […]  People with high self-esteem, but low self-efficacy, must rely on continual feedback from others.”   (Ivory Tower Blues, p.70) 

 Our grandparents weren’t so risk averse.  “With the proliferation of graded schools in the middle of the 19th century, retention became a common practice. In fact, a century ago, approximately half of all American students were retained at least once before the age of 13”  (Rose, Janet S.; et al. “A Fresh Look at the Retention-Promotion Controversy.” Journal of School Psychology, v21 n3 p201-11 Fall 1983).  But this was in the days before the strange practice of age-apartheid in modern schools.  In the one-room schoolhouse, the older children provided behavioural models for the younger kids, as well as helping to teach them curriculum.  And if there’s one thing I have found out over more than a decade of teaching, it’s that if you want to know a subject well, you should teach it to someone else.

 Remember the numbers a few paragraphs back?  Undergraduate registration has risen 900% in 60 years, largely the result of the intellectual “arms race” of the Cold War.  The idea was that the supply of a large educated class would produce its own demand – but it didn’t.  Students and parents frequently are pushed (not pulled) toward university educations because of the rampant credentialism that tells them that a degree is like a passport to a good, white-collar job.  But though the number of undergraduates increased a hundred and fifty times in the last hundred years, the population of Canada only increased six times during that same period, and the number of white collar jobs (the supposed extrinsic aim of such an education) only increased by about 60%, and sits today at only about 16% of all jobs.  The story is a fib, in other words, and it’s one that causes disengagement and erosion of academic values, as well as a devaluation of the trades.  Students are in university for the wrong reasons, and even if they don’t drop out or fail in their first year (which nearly half do), there’s no guarantee of a job in their field after they graduate.

 So, those fears of a dark future without a high school diploma or a university degree are pretty much just that:  fear.  Whatever basis in reality it has is merely a self-fulfilling prophecy, and has no bearing on the actual state of affairs in Canada.  But when you have a massively risk-averse culture, and public policy that is too often based on emotions or ideology, rather than research, the result is a chaotic mess of anxieties and confusion and artificial pressures on students and teachers alike.  Combine that with the beneficial effects of a growth mindset – one that takes failure for granted, and actually depends on it for improvement and development – and you have a conundrum.

 That P.D. session I mentioned in the first of the blog entries under this title reinforces the point:  That well-meaning ex-clergyman wanted to spare children the pain of failure, and in doing so, took all the responsibility for that student’s success onto himself.  This may have been good for his own sense of martyrdom or of self-esteem based on his own perceived heroism, but it does little for the kids it’s supposed to help.

 Students don’t just survive failure.  They need it to learn.  And our overprotective attitude towards the topic hurts them in the long run.

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11 Comments

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11 responses to “Ten Things Our Grandparents Got Right #3: They allowed us to fail

  1. Pingback: The Freedom to Make Mistakes | Arjen's blog

  2. Poppy

    Thank you for your thoughtful blog. We are very much on the same page (I’m a teacher, too) and I appreciate the energy you’ve put into thinking about all of these issues that poke into the depths of what education is and could be. I’ll be following along.

  3. There are quite a list of counter-intuitive lessons to be learned: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cognitive_biases

    • Yeah, no kidding! Our own minds are strange places to be. We need to know a lot more about how they work before we assume they’re giving us a worthwhile worldview. I wish schools taught that. 🙂

  4. Wow! This is a very comprehensive post on the topic of benefits of letting children fail and make mistakes. I particularly like the paragraph on the dropouts and their achievements. It’s scary how overrated a formal education is in predicting future success. These number should be a wake up call for all of us.

    • True. We’ve MADE formal education a prerequisite, but it shouldn’t be one, necessarily. I have a lot of sympathy for de-schooling movements, but only when it makes sense for the particular kid in question. I’ve never heard a guidance counsellor tell a kid that school might not be the right place for him, but in certain cases, it’s absolutely true. I don’t like the assumption of universality that is sometimes (often) given to my profession.

  5. Pingback: The Freedom to Make Mistakes | Upstarta.biz

  6. You make so many great points in this post. I remember a rant from a University Professor who I particularly liked. A student showed up for a total of about 3 classes all semester (for an advanced 3rd year math course).

    “THAT is the type of student who will be contesting his failing grade through the University and if he knows how to fight properly he might get a pass” “Why don’t they just give everyone B’s? That way all of you people who show up and actually learn something can get A’s and then I don’t have to waste my time fighting”

    You should have seen the “that’s too risky” reaction of most people (including my parents) when I quit teaching and started my own music business. Too large a portion of our society doesn’t have the ability to accurately assess risk at all. Yeah my parents walked out of highschool, joined a Union and worked in a risk-free thought-free job for the past 30 years, but my generation can’t do that: we need risk-taking trail-blazers now more than ever.

    • Congratulations on your courage! I’m a fine one to talk, really, since I’m still working in the profession despite my ambivalence. The problem is that I actually believe really strongly in the role of public education, despite its shortcomings. The state has the responsibility to provide it, in my opinion, but it also has the responsibility to provide high quality academic choices, as well as alternatives for kids who don’t fit the academic mould.

  7. You’re now in the throes of the academic year. Please don’t tell me I have to wait till next summer for Parts 4–10! I just learned about this blog from an acquaintance and LOVE it. I’m not in the education field, but am a parent of a toddler and am really only recently thinking about these issues. My wife and I made sure from the get-go that we wouldn’t gasp and rush in every time our son fell, unless he cried; the result, now, is that, unless he hurts himself, he gets up, merrily says, “kaboom!” gets back to whatever he’s been doing.

    Anyway, I’m learning a lot and am sharing the blog with others. I hope this eventually turns into a book!

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