We hear a lot about resilience and grit these days. In our work toward understanding more about how the social/emotional and academic overlap, these two “skills” are finally making their way into how we talk about learning in our schools. Hopefully, they will influence how we design learning experiences and assessments as well.
What remains somewhat in question is how much resilience can be “taught” and how much is related to temperament and culture. However, there is no shortage of literature on the topic. Books and blogs abound on how to discuss failures with our children so that they become less fearful of failure and see in them both personal successes and opportunities for growth and learning.
One of the angles that I think may be missing from the conversation, however, is whether or not our children will ever have a real “failure” to learn from. When I think back to my own childhood, I struggle to remember more than a few real failures. Sure, there were times when I made an 85% on a test and probably could have made an A, but that wouldn’t register to me or my teachers as a “failure.” Even mistakes were often unique to the specific learning task and too small to offer many takeaways that would transcend subject or space. In reflecting as an adult, I think there are (at least) two important reasons I think my childhood is lacking in failure stories (and therefore learning opportunities).
One is that the system wasn’t challenging me. Blessed with decent academic skills and support, it was pretty easy for me to reach the bar that was set for me at school. (It was a low bar.) I could easily pass my classes and perform on standardized tests, but neither my parents or teachers recognized the need to push me beyond that bar, to ask more of me, or to challenge me to the edges of my ability so that I could reach my full potential. It just wasn’t really the culture (in the 80’s) for my parents to step in with academic or extracurricular enrichment outside of the school. And the school system, then and now, seemed better able to ensure that everyone met standardized minimums rather than personal maximums.
I am positive that I would have benefited by experiences that were at the very edge of my ability. Undoubtedly, some of those experiences would have included “failures.”
Another reason I’m lacking in failure stories was fear. This fear, I believe, resulted from some innate perfectionism and the kinds of praise I got from parents and teachers.
In their book, Nurture Shock, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman use current research to turn some of our parental instincts and “understandings” on their head. In the first chapter, titled “The Inverse Power of Praise,” they lay out some convicting consequences of certain kinds of praise, particularly the kind of praise that says “You are smart.”
It is somewhat counterintuitive; however, children who grow up believing that they are “smart” and “talented,” students who find themselves to be “successful” without having to put out much effort, are also found to have the following characteristics:
The presumption has been that if kids believe that they are smart, they won’t be intimidated by challenge, but in fact, the opposite may be true, and this points back to the idea of growth mindset.
Carol Dweck defines growth mindset as follows:
"In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that's that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don't necessarily think everyone's the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it."
Students need to know HOW they are successful. We need to focus on effort and challenge rather than the grade at the finish line. Praise needs to be specific so that our kids know what to do in the future to move themselves toward success.
When “smart” and “successful” are seen as binary (you either are or you aren’t), we can inadvertently place our students in the position of having to continue to prove that they are what we think they are (“smart”). That may make challenging experiences a threat to their identity.
I remember trying new things and when it didn’t come “easy” in the way that other things did, I just assumed I wasn’t good at that thing the way I was good at other things. So, I stuck with the things at which I was “good.” I stuck with the things that came easy well into my 20s.
If we are going to help our kids become resilient and truly challenge themselves to reach their full potential, we certainly need to help them understand how to learn from their failures and mistakes. First, we have to be sure that we create a culture and a school that will force them to the edge of their comfort zone and ability, encourage their effort and strengths, and give them lots of opportunities to actually have failures from which they can learn. Kairos Academy of Austin will be just that kind of place.
For more reading on learning from failure:
Did something in this blog speak to you in regards to your family's personal experience with learning? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
Written by Jennifer Lucy, Founding Board Member of Kairos Academy of Austin
In Greek, Bios refers to the life experience shared by all living things. At Kairos, we interpret Bios as "Life Lived Together." Kairos’ Bios Connection is an Innovative Component of the Kairos Approach designed to lift the eyes of the school learning community to the world around them, in meaningful and relevant service to the communities in which they live. Priority is given to time exploring and learning in nature, building and supporting relationships, and serving our community. Kairos teachers create and guide relevant and meaningful learning through Bios Experiences that connect to and integrate the content learning while engaging students on deeper, real world level that is beyond themselves. Kairos Academy also provides opportunities for parents to participate alongside students.
Teaching is a skill that requires creativity, knowledge of and passion for subject matter, self-determination, relationship, and accountability. Being accountable to self, to students, to parents, to colleagues, and to the Mission and Vision of the organization is a Core Value of Kairos. Accountability is both externally driven and internally driven. Externally-driven accountability includes measures such as standardized tests and teacher evaluations. Internally-driven accountability involves ongoing self-evaluation and reflection to identify strengths and areas for growth. Valuing, implementing, and modeling a combination of the external and internal drivers of accountability is very important to a holistic approach like Kairos.
“Unless. Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” -Dr Seuss
In recent weeks, you may have seen our Facebook page pop up with the beloved Lorax. The quote from the famous Dr. Seuss book has always been one of my staples. It is something I deeply believe in and always turn to as an educator.
It is my “caring” nature that drove me to join the Kairos Ed board almost two years ago. I wanted to change the face of education, provide more educational options to families, and build a community of collaboration.
Be. Be in this present moment. This moment holds enormous potential. Carpe diem!