Parents, Take Note: NY Times Asks If the Secret to Success is Failure

September 25, 2011 — Leave a comment

There is an anecdote about Thomas Edison whose most memorable invention was the light bulb. Apparently, this invention took  1,000 tries before he finally succeeded in developing a light bulb that worked. “How did it feel to fail 1,000 times?” a reporter asked. “I didn’t fail 1,000 times,” Edison responded. “The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.”

Edison's successful light bulb was the result of 1000 failures

At 40 years old Edison already had a long list of successful patents. However, in his response, he framed his failures as steps in the invention process, and because of his persistence in learning from his failures as he developed the incandescent bulb, the opening of the 20th Century was bathed in light.

Edison’s story illustrates that learning starts in failure; attempts are steps to success.  Unfortunately, allowing for failure as a part of the learning process has become a major issue for educators as evidenced in the article by Paul Tough, “What if the Secret to Success Is Failure?” which was the cover story in the Sunday, September 14, 20011, education issue of the New York Times Magazine.

In the article, Tough interviewed both Dominic Randolph, the headmaster at the exclusive Riverdale Country School in New York, and David Levin, the co-founder of the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), a national network of schools in 20 states, who also serves as the superintendent of the KIPP schools in New York City. Both educators argued for the inclusion of character building in order for students to achieve success in school but more importantly beyond school. In the article, Randolph referred to this quality as “grit”, something he explains he developed in his years of trial and error dropping out of college, working at low-paying jobs, and in traveling abroad. “’The idea of building grit and building self-control is that you get that through failure,’ Randolph explained. ‘And in most highly academic environments in the United States, no one fails anything.’”

Randolph has pushed Riverdale to adopted a character initiative and placed K.C. Cohen, the guidance counselor for the middle and upper schools, and Karen Fierst, a learning specialist in the lower school in charge of the initiative.  Both Cohen and Fierst admitted to Tough that they have experienced pressure from parents or guardians who have on occasion hindered a student’s opportunity to learn from failure.

Tough summarizes the  the problem as being one,

  “… for all parents, not just affluent ones. It is a central paradox of contemporary parenting, in fact: we have an acute, almost biological impulse to provide for our children, to give them everything they want and need, to protect them from dangers and discomforts both large and small. And yet we all know — on some level, at least — that what kids need more than anything is a little hardship: some challenge, some deprivation that they can overcome, even if just to prove to themselves that they can. As a parent, you struggle with these thorny questions every day, and if you make the right call even half the time, you’re lucky. But it’s one thing to acknowledge this dilemma in the privacy of your own home; it’s quite another to have it addressed in public, at a school where you send your kids at great expense.”

I would suggest, the expense of a school, namely tuition, is a small factor in this dilemma; all educators-public or private- confront this paradox daily. Like many of the administrators or teachers interviewed for the article, I have received calls from parents complaining about grading, teacher policies, or assignment(s) that have resulted in a failing grade. Some calls may merit intervention on my part as department chair, but more often the request by the parent is one to change a grade, to accept mediocre work, or to not hold a student accountable for an assignment. Many educators feel that the mantra made famous at at NASA, that  “failure is not an option”, has become an underlying educational principle in schools today.

I suggest that schools are the best places -the safest places-to learn the lessons of failure. In fact, I suggest that schools must allow students to learn how to fail. Teaching students to complete a task or assignment is akin to teaching students the scientific method, and the scientific method accepts failure as an outcome. Assignments require students to define, to gather, to form, to test, to analyze, and/or to interpret. In failing to complete an assignment successfully, a student should reflect. Maybe something went wrong with a calculation or with the method of studying, of completing the homework, of preparing the report, of relying on members of a team. Perhaps the student has incorrectly estimated the length of time a particular assignment will require. Possibly there was a lack of materials-or a book left home or a paper lost. Why an assignment’s response was a failure is part of the learning process. Instead,  failure to meet the requirements of an assignment has led to excuses, and the unfortunate reality of today is that increasingly, the excuses come from the parent or guardian. Failure should be an opportunity for a student to reflect and learn “what went wrong?” Intervention by a parent or guardian at this critical moment disrupts an important life lesson.

Of course, there are a myriad of support systems in schools state by state to help many students be successful. Connecticut requires several tiers to aiding students K-12 in Response to Intervention (RTI) programs. All states are federally mandated to provide special education programs. Most importantly, there are teachers in every school system nationwide who provide students with extra help, extra credit, and/or opportunities for re-takes or rewrites. All of these support systems are there to help private and public schools to prepare students to be productive citizens in the real world.

The real world, however, is often not as kind. The support services so prevalent in schools today do not exist for most high school graduates. Extra help may be difficult to find, extra credit projects do not exist, and federally mandated programs are limited in services to graduates. In preparing their students to meet the real world, Randolph and Levin have included character building in the academic day of their respective institutions citing a need to have students practice character traits that help them cope with failure. Tough’s article concludes that students need to learn to deal with failure “in order to lead happy and productive lives.”

In learning how failure can prepare them for life, students may need to develop the character  trait of  persistence, the same persistence exhibited by Edison to tackle a problem 1000 times. Want a more contemporary model? Then look at Michael Jordan who is quoted as saying, “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

Students need to practice how to turn an experience of failing into a lesson for success, while parents need to allow their children the opportunities to learn how to deal with failure. Yes, failure in school can be emotionally painful, but failure to prepare students for real life is unconscionable.

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