Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Learning to Fail

I send my kids to school for two main reasons. Primarily it gets them out of my hair. Their formal education has been the salvation to my sanity. Sending my kids to school is (I'm slightly embarrassed to admit) a respite for myself and a gazillion other moms. Also, it's where they learn. And learning is good. 
But unfortunately learning doesn't happen by osmosis. I've spent more than the average American mother giving birth and raising babies but that doesn't make me an obstritrician or pediatrician. Likewise, sending my kids into a school building everyday isn't going to make them smart either. Work must be done. Teaching must take place and encouragement must ensue because education isn't magic. 
The physicist Niels Bohr once defined an expert as “a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field.” Bohr’s quip summarizes one of the essential lessons of learning, which is that people learn how to get it right by getting it wrong again and again. So in other words, if he's right I’m sending my kids to school so that they can get it wrong. 
Doesn't that sound like the exact opposite of "No Child Left Behind" where schools and teachers are rewarded for how many correct answers their students get? Could Bohr be onto something? Is education and wisdom wrung from failure?
A study done by Carol Dweck emphasizes that it is not only the quality of education a child receives that impacts his or her ability to learn. What a student believes about his ability to learn plays a very important role as well.
Dweck of Columbia University conducted a student in twelve different New York City schools involving more than 400 fifth graders. She gave the students a relatively east test consisting of nonverbal puzzles. Upon completion of the test the students were told their score and were given a single line of praise. Half of the kids were praised for their intelligence. "You must be smart at this," while the other students were praised for their effort: "You must have worked really hard."
The students were then administered another test, this one of their choosing. The first test was described as a more difficult set of puzzles, but the kids were told that they would learn more from trying. The second option was a test that was significantly easier and similar to the test they'd just finished.
Dweck was astounded how the different forms of praise affected the student's choice of tests. Almost 90% of the children who were praised for their effort choose to take the more difficult test. However, the children who had been praised for their intelligence went for the easier test. Could the form of praise really make that significant of a difference? According to Dweck, yes. Praising kids for intelligence encourages them to "look" smart which means they won't risk making a mistake and looking dumb.
Next Dweck gave the same fifth graders another test this one extremely difficult. She wanted to see how the students would now respond to a challenge. The kids who were initially praised for their effort worked hard at figuring out the new, eighth grade level puzzles. The students praised for their smarts were easily discouraged viewing their mistakes as a sign of failure contemplating maybe they weren't as smart as they thought they were.
Upon completion of the test the two groups of students were given a chance to look at the exams of the other students. Students praised for their intelligence almost always choose to view the tests of students who did worse then did, thus bolstering their self esteem. The kids praised for their hard work? You guessed it! They were more interested in viewing the kids’ tests that did better than they did indicating they desired to learn from their mistakes so they would know how to do better.
What does this mean for us as parents? Do we tell our kids they are smart so they will believe it or should we compliment their attempts at learning to boost their confidence? I'm no psychologist by any means, but even I can see that it is important for us to let our kids have a chance to learn for themselves. As I have worked with PreK families for over 16 years, I have observed countless number of well meaning parents complete puzzles for their toddlers, color for their kids and give an answer by counting for the child.
Learning is not and will never be a spectator sport. Your child will not understand how to do a puzzle by watching you show them. They will only learn how to do a puzzle when the weight of the piece is in their hand, their eyes measure the spacial relationship and their brain calculates which way to turn their wrist in comparison the other pieces already aligned in front of them. It is a very tricky neurological process.
Listen, our kids are smart. However, if Dweck is right and if how I respond to my kid's intelligence can help or hinder their attempts at future learning why would I not weigh every word that comes out of mouth with great measure? What a challenge this would be for me on report card day. Dare I praise all the A's or congratulate the very hard fought well earned B? All I know is this; I want my kids to want to try. And if that means allowing failure first and success second, well that will have to be a test I learn to live with. Why? Because I'm the mom and I said so! That's why!

*This article appears as a part of my weekly Practical Parenting series for The Monmouth Daily Review Atlas


  1. I love this! I have always hated how my dad didn't mention anything when I got a B but always said something when I got an A.

    I think I'm a pretty smart person, but I don't necessarily look smart on paper. I don't do well at standardized tests and I don't do well at multiple choice tests. Give me a paper and I'll make at least a B, usually an A.

    When I have children, they will definitely hear praise of their hard work when the get a B. Hell, even a C. If I know they are doing homework and getting tutored, a C is still good.

    Thanks for such a great post.

    1. Thanks Ashley! Wouldn't it be great if our kids schools gave credit for genuine effort? For trying? This will be a challenge for me to implement with my kids I admit but I don't want to raise kids who are too concerned with "looking" smart than "trying" to learn!

  2. This is such a thoughtful article! Your kids are so very lucky to have you as their mama - someone who's willing to listen to them, and work their hardest to do what's best for them!

    (We all deserve this, yes?)

  3. Hi Galit! Thank you so much for stopping in today to my To Write a Better Story!
    I appreciate your kind comment!

    This failure theory would work quite well if we'd all be committed to trying our best ALL the time but alas, who can?

    I followed your link and discovered your a puggle owner! We have a Jug (Pug Jack Russell). Oh dear Lord is she a handful!

    Thanks again! Appreciate your visit today! I like/need/appreciate new bloggy friends!

  4. A thought provoking article Stephanie. My son is only 2, but his father and I have been giving his future education much thought. Not just formally, but informally. Aside from a structured learning environment, we feel it's important to teach him life skills, outside of school. How exactly we're going to approach that, we are as yet, unsure. But we do know this: teaching is not showing. Teaching is allowing them to experience.


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