Saturday, October 8, 2011

Helping Kids Fail

At back-to-school night this week, a respected teacher asked if any parents had read the NY Times article, "What if the Secret to Success is Failure?" For those who need a quick refresher, the gist of the article is about building character. Character or grit, as it is referred to in the article comes about through failure, through trying, becoming discouraged, exhausted, even exasperated, but also continuing to persevere. “The idea of building grit and building self-control is that you get that through failure,” [the Times explained.] “And in most highly academic environments in the United States, no one fails anything.” Returning home that night, I asked my sophomore daughter about learning by failure. She replied, "Dad, I can't fail. Teachers don't permit failure. They grade everything. If I fail a test, I have to work so hard to raise my grade that it is actually easier not to fail."

Long ago, I stopped "grading" homework. I teach kids that homework is practice. When I tell them this early in the year, a few students always ask me to tell all the teachers homework is practice. My students need coaching, too. They need to know how to improve in certain areas. I adopt a philosophy I have observed excellent physical education and art teachers practice. I give kids feedback on their homework quality, critiques their efforts, focus on individual differences. For example, one student may need to work on word choice, another student might practice writing with more figurative language. PE teachers never tell students they have to re-do an effort, they focus on one skill they think will benefit the student the most. Great art teachers don't critique student work so harshly the students loses all motivation. Instead, they suggest a more color here, a little more rubbing stick there.

The question, it seems to me isn't how we, as teachers help students learn to succeed, it is how we help them learn to fail. For it is through failure that the most learning occurs. In our high-stakes testing and emphasis on grades, how are we allowing kids to learn through failure?

Before kissing my daughter good night, we had a great discussion that I hope armed her for a discussion with her teachers about how she could fail, learn, and receive a high grade in their classes. In this season of parent conferences ask teachers how they provide for failure in their courses.

1 comment:

  1. If I may be so presumptuous, I think you and Noa were using different definitions of "fail." She was talking about getting lower than 60%. You were talking about making big mistakes. I am sure that room exists between 60% and 100% for plenty of mistakes that can be great learning opportunities. However, an "F" is reason for concern -- feedback that a student was pretty far below the teacher's expectations for the work.

    I'll take your ungraded homework and raise you one. Why have homework at all? I am reminded of the story about the AP US History teacher who eliminated homework. Class time became special, and the students actually performed better on the subsequent AP exam. Yes, I know I really should cite a source for that story, but this isn't real writing, is it? ;^)