Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Allowing kids to fail without feeling like a failure

Between the jet lag and not having slept in over 30 hours, waking up at 3am in France is an interesting time to reflect.  For some reason I started thinking about the magic of children's beliefs and the profound sadness of those who are struggling.

A couple of reasons probably led me to these thoughts.  We recently had the students complete a survey for a local university.  The students had been told that if at any time they became uncomfortable with the questions they could just stop.  When the questions got to self-esteem, a number of students that we worry about decided that they did not want to continue, which was quite sad that at a young age they already had that image of themselves.

The second reason was that a friend and colleague had tweeted about the incredible passion of students and their desire to change the world.  She had shared an example of the student wanting to do something for the victims of the earthquake in Japan.  The question was then posed, when do children stop believing that they can change the world?  I had replied with "When adults tell them too many times they cannot do it".  Why do so many of us adults tell kids they can't do something rather than letting them try.  Hopefully they are successful, and if not, can there not be a rich conversation around the why, rather than a "I told you so" conversation?

With the debate around moving away from letter grades, some of the talk was around the life lessons around failing.  I am not sure if there are life lessons in failing but there are amazing lessons to be learned from failed attempts.  When a baby is learning to walk, there are going to be moments of teetering, there are going to be times of falling flat on the butt (thank goodness for the extra padding in the nappies) and perhaps the occasional set of tears when they completely lose their balance.  The vast majority of adults would not try to stop them from trying to walk until they felt the child was ready for the experience.  We let them experience failed attempts as a natural part of their development.

When children first begin to speak, we listen to what they say, we do our bet to understand them and there are a lot of hand gestures, pointing and guessing involved.  We do not stop them when their utterances are incorrect.  We let them try to explain themselves, we ask them to repeat. We model the language for them, they listen, they mimic and they keep trying.  There are many failed attempts that might occur, but the key is that they are encouraged to keep on trying.

One of the parts of my job that I really love is when I watch the kindergarten students build with blocks or lego.  Their imagination is inspiring and their thought process is so verbal and remarkable.  You listen to them talk to one another as they attempt to build the largest tower in the world.  It will fall over and they try again.  They talk about what they felt went wrong, they make adjustments and they try again. That tower may fall 10-15 times, but each time they try with a new idea and gradually they are more successful.  If we were to intervene and show them what they are doing wrong, would they be as interested in trying again or will they become passive as you show them what to do.  Would they still be interested in hypothesizing on their own and lose the desire to continue? When they ask for help, do you push them aside, build a large tower or do you ask them questions, listen to their ideas, and then maybe ask a few guiding questions and let them try again.

This is not to say that we should not be limiting some of their ideas.  I remember when I was on supervision watching two boys with large golf umbrellas running up to the playground.  Somehow intuitively I knew what they were up to and I stopped them before they climbed to the top of the playground to do around a 10-12 foot jump to test out the parachute abilities of the umbrellas.  This does lead me to pose the question, when should we intervene, when do they need our protection?

We try to protect the children by not letting them make the same mistakes we made, but is that the right thing to do?  By limiting their exposure to making mistakes, trial and error and failure, are we preparing them for what to do when they encounter difficulties?  Are they given as many problem solving opportunities as they need?  Think back to the conversations that are had when the child makes a mistake, when their attempt to do something ended up in failure.  Were they told that it serves them right for trying?  Were they told that they should never have tried it in the first place? When do those conversations need to take place?

In “protecting” students are we stunting their growth, limiting their development and diminishing that spirit that they can be whatever they want, that they can change the world around them and that they can be a difference maker?  When do they start worrying about red tape, policies, whether or not it is worth trying?  Why are there so many adults who intentionally, or accidentally, correct students until they no longer want to try?

It seems that in the school system, as the students get older, we move more from experimenting, trial and error and problem solving to one of rigidity, compliance, and focussing on what is wrong versus what is right.  To fail at an attempt is considered unacceptable, and then we fail the students when their failures exceed their successes. Students are then assigned a failing grade.  Nothing like reinforcing what they are not getting to motivate them to try again.

We can have a later conversation about how to differentiate between the student who gets it right away and the one who gets it on the 20th attempt, but if on the 20th attempt they get it and really understand it, why are they then given a failing grade? They may have struggled on their homework and quizzes, they may have needed extra tutorials and they may have stayed after class to get extra support, but if on their last assessment they have clearly demonstrated that they understand what was taught, why are they being punished or diminished for having failed in their first attempts? Are we teaching or are we sorting?

One of the biggest disservices we can do to our kids and students is knock that spirit out of them by constantly correcting, limiting, condemning failure and not letting them experiment.  If they are not likely to be seriously hurt, should we be stopping them?

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