I’ve missed more than 9,000 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.
Failure. It sounds like a total loss--maybe even loaded with shame, disappointment, crumbled self-worth. But failure is actually a key element of success. Many “successful” people, from Michael Jordan to Winston Churchill, have waxed poetic about the insights they’ve gained from falling short. Einstein even said, “Failure is success in progress.”
The key here is knowing the difference between destructive failure and productive struggle.
Let’s take the common example of a student who is struggling in math. The school decides the best course of action is to pile on more math. This student now has algebra, at which she was already struggling, plus a math tutor, plus extra math homework. Instead of everyone learning from the student’s math struggle and growing (Maybe the teacher wasn’t approaching the subject well? Maybe the student is stressed out in other areas? Maybe the student really missed taking art and was unhappy to be at school?), they continued down the path of destructive failure. Now the student is struggling, but also hates math, has decided she’s a complete failure, and never wants to discuss numbers again. Period. Finito. The hallmark of destructive failure is that it leads to a sense of inadequacy. The student now blames herself.
What if this had become a productive struggle instead? The math teacher realized this student was having a hard time and altered the curriculum in a way that made sense. The teacher discovered how much this student loved art, and he decided to teach math through art. Now the student can see numbers in a whole new way, has more art in her day, and is happier to be at school. Success in math has led to a boost in self confidence for the student, plus bonus growth for the teacher. Productive struggles are vital if we want to evolve and become empowered.
Unfortunately, students frequently experience destructive failures in these situations. On top of that, they’re afraid to take risks and fail, even in subjects they love and understand. Part of this is the extrinsic motivation present in our modern school system. Students are trained to work solely for good grades. If they have those--or if they believe grades are the be all end all--they don’t want to risk their GPA. This risk aversion has bled over into every area of their lives, and they nearly always play it safe. When you don’t take risks, you don’t fall. And if you don’t fall, you can’t find a new way to get back up.
What’s interesting is when a student learns to listen to intrinsic motivation, they can actually surpass students who are just working for grades. Student A and Student B enter a classroom. Student A has more inherent skill. But Student B is willing to take chances. Because Student B pushes himself out of comfort zones, he’s able to grow more than Student A. Student A has a good grade, but they haven’t really improved much. Shouldn’t we be pushing for more Student B’s instead of churning out more Student A’s?
Of course, I used to be a Student A. Thankfully, taking a bunch of art classes exposed me to critique. Tons of students (and adults, let’s be honest) fear critique because it can be rough on the self esteem. But over time, I started craving critique. I could take those comments and suggestions about my art and use them to get to the next level. I started painting and photographing in new and improved ways. If we start integrating critique into early education, students will grow up learning to experience and enjoy feedback. Even the negative, albeit constructive, kind.
It seems there might be some truth behind that buzzword: grit. Angela Duckworth, basically the queen of grit, defines this quality as “a combination of passion and perseverance for very long term goals.” If we help students develop grit at an early age, they’ll have the desire to see things through. To not give up. To learn from failures and adopt a growth mindset. But how do we do it? After all, it sounds less straightforward than a photo lesson plan.
According to Mary Cay Ricci, we should first focus on the environment: how we treat and prime students for these grit-focused behaviors, setting expectations: how we expect students to fail and respond. We use the vocabulary: how students describe their learning experiences in detail, actively creating healthy struggle: how students are appropriately challenged, monitoring the experience and focusing on the process: how we make sure to jump in when students are leaving the goldilocks zone of challenge--the window of opportunity between, “This is getting hard” and “I quit.” Then we must allow students ample time to reflect: too often I see teachers rushing to the next lesson without pausing for reflection. Without this step, students won’t truly absorb the experience.
In my classroom, I highlight the students who struggled and grew through the process, rather than just the predominantly high achievers. I ask students to vocalize their struggles and we collectively problem solve with the student. Not only do students grow from their own experiences and failures, but we’re all able to learn from each other’s struggles and successes.
It’s important to coach students through tough assignments so they can appreciate mistakes. When they see errors as a sign of weakness or incompetence, they’re likely to make more mistakes. But if we help them make room for wrong answers, they’ll learn to have successful failures and a true growth mindset.