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Monday, February 4, 2013

Research: Failure, disappointment necessary for student development

But while more and more people are talking about embracing failure, the status quo has a powerful hold on the institutions charged with educating North American children, experts say. There’s a double standard in the messaging around screw-ups that can confuse students who look to their parents and teachers for guidance and validation, said Susan Einhorn, the Montreal-based executive director of the Anytime Anywhere Learning Foundation.
“There’s a mixed message that goes out: Students are told it’s OK to make mistakes, we’ll learn from our mistakes,” she said “And yet most kids are celebrated for their high correctness, perfection on a test, their high scores. That’s what’s celebrated.” (from "In praise of failure: The key ingredient to children’s success, experts say, is not success" By Sarah Boesveld, National Post, February 2, 2013, below)
There is a moral value in direct conflict with a learning value here.
We want perfectly moral childen, young people on whom we can count for living lives of moral and ethical purity, because our religious orientation is so virulently and vehemently opposed to what it sees as sin, evil, and all the other forms of moral turpitude. We organize their schedules as if they were in boot-camp for becoming CEO's, executives in white collar professions, even at six and seven years of age. We demand their perfect performance on all school activities, especially those generating a "foot print" of history and tradition like the proverbial report card, the science fair, the debating competition, the music festival, and, of course, the class play.
And, above all, we never want to hear the door-bell, or phone call from the 'authorities' signalling some behaviour that does not completely and perfectly conform to the law, the community standards, the culture, and especially the religious institution to which "our" family belongs.
Young children, however, are unable to discern our different motives expressed in our expression of different moral expectations from our willingness to accept the learning maxim that trial and error are the best teachers for the development of children willing and able to meet failure, disappointment and even trauma.
In fact, we have not evolved on the need for trial and error, and its implications for educating our children. However, we are usually less upset by a mark of 70% on a math exam than on a call from the police informing us that our child has stolen from the local WalMart.
Learning to trust our children, however, in both learning and "life" situations, is not exactly a lesson many adults/parents have completed. And the short answer to "why?" is that they (we) have not come to the position of full trust of anyone, including themselves. And if we have to protect other adults from their "tragedies" we will certainly adopt that position with our children.
We are a co-dependent and patronizing society, based on two conflicting values: our own moral superiority and the moral inferiority of others. Some even stretch that equation to the intellectual acomplishment scale: our's versus that of others.  Too many males, especially, (but a rapidly growing number of females too!) look for and find too many occasions by which to compete, successfully (placing themselves above others) or unsuccessfully (by seeing themselves as less than others) on too many scales of value.
Read a resume, listen to a professional athlete, read a eulogy, read a biography of an aspiring political leader....they are all replete with self-praise for personal accomplishments....They are rarely exposed by their opposites, like the comments of San Francicso 49ers'quarterback, Colin Kaeperlink following the Super Bowl, when he uttered these words, "I made too many mistakes for us to win!"
Those of us for whom failure has been an essential ingredient to our personal, intellectual and emotional, not to mention spiritual, development, know that our resume will not 'cut it' when there are Rhodes Scholars in the competitions, or when there are provincial athletic champions competing for college teams. Parading our perfection, as one observer of the young daughters of a professional mother colleague put it, does no justice to those perfect daughters, their mother, or the culture of the community in which they are being raised as "role models". We all know that their lives are merely "undisclosed" to the community in which such observations are made. We also know that the failure to disclose emerges from a family culture in which both children and parent are protecting each other from the truth. The children believe that the mother cannot "handle" the truth and the mother believes that, in order to be an acceptable mother, she does not point to any "cracks" in the perfect image of the daughters, in line with the mother, below, who plagarizes to make her child's school performance more perfect.
With the continuing growth of the religious manichean world view, dividing all experience into "good" versus "evil" we will see even more slippage, both conscious and unconscious, into the maelstrom of confusion, in our vain attempt to manage the complexities of our worlds, including our schools, our communities, our towns and villages, and even into our larger institutions like universities and corporations.
Just today, one of the failures of our self-sabotage through our pursuit of perfection, is on the front pages of our national papers, disclosing too many failures in the preparation, distribution and administration of chemotherapy treatment for cancer patients in Canada. Of course, we all want a policy of "zero tolerance" of such errors as putting the wrong chemical mix in the bag, the wrong name on the bag, the wrong opening on the valve that permits the mix to flow, too quickly or too slowly. However, how we work toward such an end result really matters. What are the rewards and punishments for those working as laboratory asssistants, for the pharmacists, for the administering nurses? What are the working conditions in which all participants work? To which extent are these people under duress, under threat, under healthy supervision and monitoring? To what extent are they the product of a system that will tolerate no errors, as part of the culture that sabotages their daily accomplishments. I'll bet that the culture is characterized with more punishments than positive rewards, with more lack of trust than shared responsibility, with less social, political and fiscal support than would generate better results... and yet, we will hold the individuals "responsibile" whose errors can be pinned on their names, reputations and careers, just as they were in the celebrated case of the Sick Children's Hospital nurse, Susan Nelles, when the babies died, several years ago. After undergoing extreme stress to herself and her family, she was ultimately exonerated. It was, however, our need for both perfection, and an equally powerful need for a culprit in the tragedy that generated the drama of inflicting punishment. Organizations, unfortunately, are not held to the same level of account and responsibility, as are individuals, perhaps because they are less "impotent" and much better financed, including much better insured than most individuals.
When the culture learns that individually and collectively we all have a plank in our eye, we will be willing and able to treat the speck in the eye of the other more patiently, with more compassion, with greater trust and will more resilience as we all begin to experience a new level of acceptance, as individuals who authentically want to do a good job and whose liklihood to accomplish a better level of performance rises with our acceptance both by ourselves and by our culture. Here is another example of how we are so intimately connected....in our mutual inter-dependence, sometimes for our learning, sometimes for our growth, and finally often for our very lives.
Teachers, parents, educators...and all of us would do well to drop some of our fear that the other needs our protection (patronizing as it usually is) and as the bishop who delivered the homily on a Friday afternoon to the private boys school said, to the surprise of his adolescent audience prepared to be utterly bored, "Mind your own business!" and then sat down.

In praise of failure: The key ingredient to children’s success, experts say, is not success
By Sarah Boesveld, National Post, February 2, 2013
Emily Martell was born to be Rizzo. So badly did the Grade 4 student want the role of the sassiest Pink Lady in her school’s production of Grease that she marched into the audition in a short brown wig and silky pink jacket and told the panel as much.
“She was so good and I was so proud of her and thought ‘She’s going to get this part,’” her mother, Ali Martell, said.
She didn’t get it, and saw the defeat as a crushing failure — one so traumatic she seriously considered abandoning her passion for school plays.
Ms. Martell could have easily confronted the casting director and demanded he right this wrong — she wouldn’t be the first to do so at their Thornhill, Ont., school. Instead, she let Emily think about the “failure” — and make her own decision.
“She stewed on it for a day and a half, then came back to us and said ‘I never want to quit, I love drama. I didn’t get the part I wanted but I’m going to be the best Jan ever,’” she said of the secondary Pink Lady role her now Grade 6 daughter was offered instead. “She figured it out on her own.”
In letting her daughter work it out alone, Ms. Martell’s hit upon something a growing group of educators and thinkers are pushing parents to be better at, something far more crucial to children’s success in a world that increasingly values resiliency and innovation: Actually letting them fail.
The most recent plea for the embrace of failure came this week from a New Hampshire middle school teacher, Jessica Lahey, who recalled talking with a student’s mother about her daughter’s blatant plagiarism. The mother vehemently defended her daughter’s innocence until the truth came out: Mom was the plagiarist.

Ms. Lahey’s piece, published on The Atlantic’s website, stirred a lot of discussion and spurred bloggers to echo the desire to see failure as more of a key to success than a roadblock. In How Children Succeed, published last fall, Canadian journalist Paul Tough said failure is one of the biggest character builders for children — and if kids of privilege have never experienced setbacks, they’ve never learned to persevere. In early 2012, a London, U.K., girls’ school held ‘Failure Week’ in which these highly accomplished girls were challenged to join an extra-curricular outside their wheelhouse, raise their hand when they weren’t sure they had the right answer.
But while more and more people are talking about embracing failure, the status quo has a powerful hold on the institutions charged with educating North American children, experts say. There’s a double standard in the messaging around screw-ups that can confuse students who look to their parents and teachers for guidance and validation, said Susan Einhorn, the Montreal-based executive director of the Anytime Anywhere Learning Foundation.
“There’s a mixed message that goes out: Students are told it’s OK to make mistakes, we’ll learn from our mistakes,” she said “And yet most kids are celebrated for their high correctness, perfection on a test, their high scores. That’s what’s celebrated.”
The process of getting to the success — the stops and starts, the failed experiments — doesn’t get any recognition in our culture, said Ms. Einhorn, whose organization helps equip students around the world (including Canada) with laptops, and helps schools revamp their approach to teaching in a digital age.

“The whole idea of failure being OK, that’s still a fairly new concept because it’s not just a matter of changing the language in schools, it’s a matter of changing the acceptance from the community and external culture and parents.”
Today’s parents are not dealing with failure at all, and they’re applying huge pressure on teachers and schools to raise grades to levels not deserved, said Hara Estroff Marano, the editor-at-large of Psychology Today and author of A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting. “It used to be you did something and you took your lumps. You got an F in something and it was ‘OK what are you going to do to improve your grade?’” she said. “Now, you don’t give that F.”
It’s the kind of culture Edmonton physics teacher Lynden Dorval was resisting when he made headlines last year for giving zeros to students who didn’t live up to the academic standard, rather than follow the board mandated “formative assessment” process that asks teachers to evaluate through ongoing reviews instead.
Ms. Estroff Marano hears a whole lot about innovation in the business world, but that discussion isn’t happening in schools largely because it’s too scary to have.
“I think there’s a lot of talk about risk-taking, making mistakes, but in practice there’s no tolerance for it at the times and places people can best learn it, because it’s a lesson best learned early so you know ‘Hey, I can come back from that, I can pick myself up, dust myself off and do just fine,’” she said.
In his recent book Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World, education advocate Tony Wagner cites a 2011 survey by General Electric of 1,000 senior executives in 12 countries that found 95% feel innovation is the answer to a more competitive economy. Eighty-eight percent said they believe innovation will be the number one creator of new jobs in their respective countries. Mr. Wagner interviewed parents of innovators and found they let their children try many different things, which helped them find their passion, but some parents may be hesitant to take that gamble.
“Parents recognize the world is far more competitive than the world they grew up in — they’re terrified, they’re very frightened,” Mr. Wagner said. “We’re seeing, in a sense, the results of a generation of fear-driven parenting and that draws parents to want to go in the opposite direction, of trying to protect their kids, of trying to ensure they have every opportunity to be successful, defined conventionally in terms of getting into a so-called good school.”
But true innovation demands risk-taking, he said, and children can only do that when they’re trusted to make their own decisions. And there are some Canadian schools — largely independent ones — that consider it a key piece of learning.
At the Calgary Science School, the conventional model — which Mr. Wagner says was designed to raise unthinking employees, not innovators — is thrown out the window. Students learn through inquiry, trying to find solutions to real-world problems that perplex even the teachers, said Dan McWilliam, its coordinator of professional development and collaboration. Instead of seeing a setback as defeat, students at the 15-year-old charter school are taught to work through it.
This task can be tough for gifted students, who arrive at another Calgary school, Westmount Charter School, with book smarts and an apparent inability to deal with failure. Built on the research of Dalhousie professor Michael Ungar — a leading expert in resiliency — the school designed a program to deal with this: A “mobile classroom” takes Grade 7 students outside on bicycles where they learn math by studying gear ratios and social studies by following the rules of the road.

“You’d be surprised at how many of them can’t ride a bike,” said Chris Hooper, an assistant principal. “It’s creating an environment where a lot of incidental decisions just need to be made that involve a lot of cooperation and collaboration. They’re learning without knowing it.”
Despite some parents’ initial skepticism of the program’s educational value (how does bike riding constitute learning?), they’re usually pleased with the end result, he said. But over on the public school side, teachers like Andrew Campbell and Ms. Lahey are still fighting the “constant battle” of seeing students hand in projects clearly crafted by their parents. Mr. Campbell, who teaches Grades 4 and 5 at Major Ballachey Public School in Brantford, Ont., wrote a blog post for the Canadian Education Association website in December on the need for innovation in schools. He says it’s hard for parents to think of their kids’ failures as learning opportunities if schools shy away from risk-taking because they want to continue their records of doing well on provincial standardized testing, and fare well in ranking reports such as those from the Fraser Institute.
“We need to hold them to high standards, and that’s counter to the idea we have that failure is OK, resilience is important, perseverance is important,” he said. Requiring a school to meet fixed benchmarks in a fixed time frame, he said, doesn’t jive with the way students best learn critical thinking and problem solving skills — through trial and error.
As she reflects on the response to her article, Ms. Lahey hopes more parents will realize the importance of failure for their kids. But she sympathizes with their resistance.
“I’m a mom, and my heart aches when I see my children suffer. I want to rescue,” she wrote in an email to the National Post. “What’s important, however, is to tamp that down with the understanding that I am a much better mother if I acknowledge their power in the situation. Every time I take over, every time I intervene, I am telling my child that I don’t trust them…. In the end, I don’t save them. I weaken them.”

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