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Every Success Follows Many Failures

Updated: Jul 18, 2020

Have you heard of lawnmower parents (a.k.a. bulldozer parents)? They work relentlessly to eliminate any obstacle, adversity, or hardship their children may encounter. Unlike helicopter parents, who hover nearby to swoop in and help whenever there’s a problem, lawnmower parents anticipate and eradicate problems before their children even know they exist. They may have the best of intentions, yet their tactics deprive students of learning opportunities, essential skills to cope with frustration, and their children end up lacking in perseverance and resilience. This mindset is being passively absorbed by society at large and has permeated our classrooms, and the long-term consequences are tragic.

We must be comfortable being wrong, at least as a step along the way to eventually being right. Miscalculations are the necessary precursors to mastering new math skills. The courage to mispronounce words in a foreign language is an essential stepping stone to fluency. First drafts of essays lead to much-improved second drafts.

When being wrong is not embraced in a classroom, students become risk-avoidant. Too often schools reward students only for correct answers, and not for wrong answers that will lead to ultimately correct answers. Rather than hazarding an original idea, they bottle it up and simply repeat what their teacher said. They quickly learn to view this as success. Praise feels good, and students censor their thinking to focus tightly on being the first to publicly state the “right” answer during classroom discussion. It becomes an endless loop that restricts real learning. The ultimate consequence is that students learn to strive only for cheap praise, academic safety, and a high grade. A school that embraces this learning culture offers students too many learning activities that only include answers that fall neatly into the right/wrong dichotomy, and too few that force students to grapple with challenging questions that require students to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of potential solutions. The ultimate outcome is creating risk-averse students.

When students don't perform perfectly and we offer feedback that furthers the discussion coupled with praise for what they did well, even if that was just the honest effort to seek a worthy answer or the courage to publicly offer one, students continue thinking deeply. That is a vital difference.

The key is modeling classroom discourse that includes lots of wrong or incomplete explanations in pursuit of the best available explanation, and doing so in a manner that ensures the dignity of everyone who speaks. Teachers need to highlight their mistakes, and publicly evolve their understanding of challenging concepts so that students learn how to do the same. We don’t have to know everything at all times. Teachers are allowed to forget and relearn things. In fact, we should publicly celebrate this essential component of the human condition because it builds resilience in those who witness it. They will do the same countless times during their life, and knowing they are not alone in this challenge cultivates an inner strength.

Let students and teachers be wrong. Celebrate it! Rather than sitting passively in their seats, waiting for their teacher to tell them the “right answers” that they can later repeat them for public cheap praise and a good grade, students will become actively engaged in robust dialogue and grapple with interesting and challenging questions. When they know mistakes are welcome, they start taking academic risks, having fun, and enjoying the process of publicly rethinking, revising their understanding, and offering newer, revised dialogue. Students will learn to welcome struggle as the place where real learning happens. They will also learn that being “wrong” is temporary, and so it being “right”.

When the learning process becomes public, all students will quickly realize that there aren’t “smart” students and “not smart” students, only those who work through the challenging lesson and those who surrender too soon. Hopefully, they also learn to laugh at themselves from time to time.

When I was a student at Penn State in an organic chemistry course predominantly occupied with pre-med students, I quickly learned (right after the first exam) that our future physicians weren’t smarter than everyone else. As I got to know them well they very often readily disclosed that they were taught by their parents to work hard to project the image of being smart. Faced with this challenging course that threatened this facade, they were visibly shaken.

We learned challenging concepts together in the course, and it became apparent that the ingredients of their eventual success would be perseverance, the ability to control their frustration when facing academic struggle, a solid work ethic, and a laser-like focus on achieving a goal (becoming a physician). While I didn’t share their career path, I did learn the attributes that will serve any student well in any career.

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