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May 23, 2011

Teaching kids to fail

by Connie Matthiessen

This year I learned to appreciate the epic fail.

My middle son has never had a problem in school -- he's curious and motivated and likes to do well –- but 9th grade has been a different story. This year he started at one of the Bay Area's most competitive and high-pressure public schools, and he received mediocre grades for the very first time.

I shouldn't have been surprised.  At parent orientation, the student body president, a senior at the school, warned us that our freshman were likely to bring home a few lousy report cards. "Don't freak out," she said. "Your kids are used to being at the top of their classes in elementary and middle school, and coming here is a shock for many of them."

Despite the warning, I did freak out a little when I saw his first report card. Should he transfer to a different high school?  Is he under too much pressure? Will he ever get into a decent college if his grades don't improve? My biggest fear was that the experience would discourage him, and that he'd lose his love of learning and his self-esteem.

At the time, I didn't know about Alina Tugend's book, Better by Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong, but I wish I had. Last week, in a commentary on Education Week's website,Tuland argues that teaching kids to see mistakes and failures as part of the learning process helps them be more resilient --  and far more willing to take risks. "We have to be willing to let our children struggle and fail and make mistakes without always rushing in to protect them or fix the problem," Tuland says.

She quotes Stanford Professor Carol Dweck's theories on “fixed mind-sets” versus “growth mind-sets." According to Dweck, those with fixed mind sets: "believe we’re good at something—whether it’s math or music or baseball—or we’re not. When we have this fixed mind-set, mistakes serve no purpose but to highlight failure." Those who have  growth mind-sets, on the other hand, believe that some people may  be inherently stronger in certain areas, but that everyone can improve and develop their skills and abilities. According to Tuland, people with growth mind-sets "are much more likely to be able to accept mistakes because they know that they’re part of learning."

I might have jumped in and tried to "fix" my son's high school experience by finding a different school, but if I had he would have missed a valuable lesson -- and so would I. Luckily, he wouldn't let me meddle. He didn't want to change schools. Instead, my mature son began paying more attention in class, spending more time on homework, and studying harder for his tests.

As the end of the year approaches, he's pulled his grades up. Just as importantly, he's regained some of his old confidence and a lot of his good cheer: Most days, he gets up for his 7AM carpool without groaning, and he laughs a lot.


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""We have to be willing to let our children struggle and fail and make mistakes without always rushing in to protect them or fix the problem," Tuland says."

Are parents today really so dumb that they've lost sight of such basic common sense and are willing to pay "experts" to enlighten them? I mean c'mon, "Thank you, Sherlock." My parents would laugh at me if I stated something as obvious with as much sanctimonious earnestness as Tuland!

I always felt my job as a parent was to lift my children as high as they could go...and then at the end of the day, make sure their heads still fit through the door.

I guess like the other commenter mentions, it now pays to write a book about simple common sense.

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