Teaching Opinion

‘Failure Is A Critical Part Of Learning': An Interview With Art Markman

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 05, 2014 8 min read
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Art Markman, PhD is a professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Smart Thinking (Perigee Books), which he discussed at a post here last year.

His latest book is titled Smart Change: Five Tools To Create New and Sustainable Habits In Yourself and Others.

I asked him a few questions about it, and how its ideas could be applied in the classroom.

I’ll be responding to last week’s question, How Can We Best Engage Families, later this week in a multi-part series. There is still plenty of time to contribute your response.

Interview With Art Markman

LF: You talk a lot about the brain Stop and Go system and its role in creating habits. Can you summarize it and offer suggestions about how teachers and apply it to encourage students to create good habits and break bad ones?

Art Markman:

Essentially, the brain has a well-developed system for achieving goals that involves many systems deep in the brain that help people to develop habits to create routines for behaviors that are repeated. Habits develop whenever there is a consistent relationship between information in the world and a behavior and that behavior is repeated. Once behaviors are engaged, there is a second system, which I call the Stop System, that can be engaged to stop the behavior if it is not desirable in a situation. The Stop System is a relatively new system evolutionarily, and it involves regions in the frontal lobes of the brain. It is slow, effortful, and prone to failure. It does not mature until people are in their early 20s, and so most students have immature Stop Systems.

There are several important implications of this for students. First, it is important to keep classroom routines as consistent as possible to enable students to focus their mental energy on the tasks they are given rather than on the routines in the classroom. Second, it is valuable to have students think about when and where they do their work outside of school to help them create consistent environments for doing work. Third, students are going to have a hard time resisting temptation, so we should structure their environment to minimize the opportunities for temptations to derail their success.

The focus on the Go System and the Stop System may inadvertently put the role of the environment in the background. Because the Go System associates the world with behaviors, the information available in the world has an important influence on the way people act. That means that we need to teach students to set up their environments both in the classroom and at home in ways that will help them to study and learn effectively. Students should have a consistent learning environment outside the classroom. This can be particularly difficult to achieve for students who are living in more than one home or who spend a lot of time in after-school care outside of their own home. In addition, students should create environments for study that are separate from their environments for play and sleep in order to cut down on the number of temptations that they are forced to overcome when studying.

LF: What specific advice would you have for teachers to more effectively encourage students to create and work towards achieving their own goals?

Art Markman:

We need to work with kids to help them set their own goals early on and to learn to achieve those goals. When developing new behaviors, people need to create a specific plan to help them integrate the new behavior into their lives. A good plan refers to specific times and places where the behavior will be performed and considers potential obstacles carefully. In elementary school, students should be encouraged to set goals that may take a week or two to complete and to teach them to plan so that they can achieve these goals. This exercise gives students practice working toward larger goals. As students get more proficient at this task, the time horizon can be made broader.

It may be valuable to incorporate this skill into research papers. At present, many Language Arts and Social Studies classes wlll ask students to complete a paper over a period of several weeks (particularly as students get to the late-Elementary and early-Middle School years. At times, teachers will give intermediate assignments to ensure that the project is moving forward. But, teachers do not always work with students on helping them to set a specific agenda to make regular progress on their projects and they do not help students assess whether they stuck to the plan.

LF: You write a fair amount about failure -- different kinds and how to deal with them. What do you think educators should teach students about it and use it in the classroom?

Art Markman:

Failure is a critical part of learning, yet not all students learn about the importance of failure. There are three kinds of failure, and two of them are good.

First, everyone needs to learn the tradeoff between effort and accuracy. In general, the more work you put into any task, the better you will perform it. Put too much work into a task, though, and you have spent valuable time that could have been used elsewhere. So, it is valuable for students to put in too little effort on a project sometimes in order to help them calibrate the amount of effort a task is worth.

Second, even when students put in enough effort, sometimes they just get something wrong. This kind of failure is a learning opportunity. We need to reward effort. One way to reward effort is to use quiz and test corrections extensively. Students need to understand that every mistake is a learning opportunity. An error may have immediate consequences, but that does not mean that they cannot learn from that error. In the world beyond school, the most successful people are not the ones who never fail, they are the ones who learn most effectively from their failures.

Third, there is negligence. Some students consistently fail to put in any effort on their work. Negligence is a bad kind of failure, because the mistakes students make are not ones that they can learn from. Negligence is the only kind of failure that is truly unacceptable.

LF: What about students (and, perhaps, colleagues) who don’t want to make the changes we might think would be best? You talk some about that in the last portion of the book. What would your advice be to teachers on how we can be more effective influencing others to change?

Art Markman:

As you begin to understand the principles for changing behavior, you can use those principles to influence your own behavior and the behavior of other people. I already talked a bit about the importance of the environment in affecting people’s behavior. In addition, people are an important influence on behavior. Humans are a deeply social species, and so we tend to adopt the goals of the people around us. That is why a student who starts hanging around with the ‘wrong crowd’ can often get into trouble quickly. You can use the social environment to influence behavior. Start by setting a good example.

Students learn a lot from the behavior of their teachers (whether they admit it at the time or not). They quickly adapt to what teachers reward. A teacher who quickly shuts down discussion will cause students to stop asking questions. A teacher who does not discuss tests after the grading is done will encourage students to ignore their incorrect answers.

In addition, many schools focus a lot on classroom management, but less time on the social dynamics of the classroom. There may be times where students who are struggling with their motivation in the classroom can be encouraged to work with students who find the classroom environment more natural to help them engage more deeply in work.

LF: Are there any other things you’d like to share that I haven’t asked you about?

Art Markman:

There is real value in helping students to understand their own minds, even from an early age. Already, the work of Carol Dweck and her colleagues on mindsets has shown that when children understand that the brain is constantly changing, they put in more effort to learn difficult material. Likewise, children will benefit from understanding how they form habits and the work that is required to overcome their existing habits. In addition, children need to learn that the best cure for temptation is to remove it from the environment. Even though children will not always be able to create healthy and successful habits for themselves, the more we teach them about these mechanisms early on, the better they will be able to use this information throughout their lives.

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