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Teaching Students the Value of Failure

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In education as in other aspects of life, it is an article of faith that "nothing succeeds like success." Books such as Haim Ginott's Teacher and Child, William Glasser's Schools Without Failure, and Tom Gordon's Teacher Effectiveness Training and ideas such as mastery learning, programmed learning, positive reinforcement, and the teacher-motivation approach all suggest that schools must eliminate or at least minimize student failure. As Harold Howe 2nd has put it: "A school should be organized to make kids successful."

What is easily overlooked in our anxiety about ensuring success is that there can be no meaning or value in success without the experience of failure.

Properly understood, failure teaches and motivates. Initial failure can frequently result in improved strategies for attaining success. And, just as children deserve credit when they succeed in learning, they should also take responsibility when they fail. If teachers and schools accept that responsibility for them, then students are being taught to be irresponsible. Furthermore, the nonverbal message they will receive is that they are too fragile to accept responsibility for their failure to learn.

Educators--and their students--should keep in mind that history is filled with examples of "failures" who went on to achieve great success. Abraham Lincoln failed in business twice and was defeated for public office eight times. George Bernard Shaw coped with failure, too: "When I was a young man I observed that nine out of 10 things I did were failures. I didn't want to be a failure, so I did 10 times more work."

Researchers have found support for this anecdotal evidence. Victor and Mildred Goertzel--in Cradles of Experience, their study of 400 eminent men and women of the 20th century--found that three-fourths of their group experienced one or more of the following: broken homes; rejecting, overpossessive, estranged, or dominating parents; financial instability; physical handicaps; parental dissatisfaction over their school failures or vocational choices.

Jane Macfarlane's findings at the University of California's Institute of Human Development substantiate these findings. In a longitudinal study of 200 children who were followed from infancy through adulthood, two-thirds of the sample did not follow the predictions. Children from troubled homes did not in most cases become troubled adults.

Other studies have looked at children who were at high risk for developing mental illness because their parents were psychotic. E. James Anthony, whose extensive studies have followed such children into adulthood, says many of them "seem not only to be immune to pathological influences in the environment, but almost to thrive on them." They see their environment as a challenge and grow up to be competent, well-adjusted adults.

It should be clear that students can learn from and overcome various forms of adversity. As one analyzes the research literature and the clinical evidence, four important points emerge that should guide teachers in helping their students learn from failure.

Failure in performance does not mean failure as a person. If students equate poor performance with lack of self-worth, fear of failure can discourage them from even trying to do well. It may be helpful to keep in mind the idea of "rational sensitivity," espoused by Albert Ellis, which takes the view that nothing is all-important, including consistent and profound failure. As Ellis put it: "When you fail, you fail. Tough! But hardly awful, horrible, or catastrophic!"

Students need to develop a sense of personal control and responsibility. It is not the student's success or failure on a particular task that is critical; rather, it is whether he attributes that success or failure to internal or external forces. A student who attributes his failure in mathematics to external forces, such as luck or the overwhelming difficulty of the subject, is likely to develop a sense of powerlessness and futility. In contrast, a student who attributes his failure to an internal factor, such as insufficient effort, retains a sense of autonomy and trust in himself.

Margaret Clifford's analysis of the research literature on "learned helplessness" led her "to predict that the probability of failure producing constructive effects will increase as expectation for control increases." For example, one study she cites found that 5th graders who attributed failure on a specific task to lack of effort performed better on a subsequent task than did those children who attributed failure to lack of ability and external factors. Probably most deficiencies in academic performance result more from lack of effort than from lack of ability.

Teachers should help students realize that difficult tasks--even if they result in failure--have more intrinsic value than easy ones. The value we attach to achieving a goal depends on how much responsibility we feel for the outcome. Students should be taught to tackle challenging tasks, rather than settle for easy successes. As Barbara Sher puts it in Wishcraft: "There is nothing in this world that's worth doing that isn't going to scare you."

Students must learn to develop effective ways of coping with failure. Teachers should allow students to experience frustration and difficulty, and let them explore ways of overcoming failure. The process of dealing with failure can in itself help students develop self-confidence. Failure can become the impetus to growth.

Protecting students from failure compromises the value of risk and challenge. Without these elements, there is little intrinsic value in success. The worship of success--the failure to value failure--produces conservative "risk avoiders" who are intolerant of less than perfect performance, retreat from the unknown, and capitulate in the face of failure.

Vol. 5, Issue 10, Page 16

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