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Teaching Opinion

Teach Students That ‘Failure Is a Step Toward Success’

By Larry Ferlazzo — August 07, 2019 13 min read
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(This is the final post in a three-part series. See Part One here and Part Two here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What is resilience and how can teachers promote it in the classroom?

Adeyemi Stembridge, Becky Corr, Julie Hasson, Cindy Terebush, Dr. Cynthia “Mama J” Johnson, and Kelly Wickham Hurst shared their suggestions in Part One.

In Part Two, Debbie Silver, Gary Armida, Tamara Fyke, Douglas Reeves, and Michael D. Toth offered their thoughts.

Today, Bryan Goodwin, Dr. Laura Greenstein, Margaret Searle, and Jon Saphier wrap up the series with their commentaries.

Though I’m not hosting radio shows this summer to accompany blog posts, you can still listen to past BAM! Radio Shows. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Response From Bryan Goodwin

Bryan Goodwin is the CEO of Denver-based McREL International. He thrives on translating research into practice, scanning the world for new insights and best practices on teaching and leading, and helping educators everywhere adapt them to address their own challenges. A frequent conference presenter, he is the author of Simply Better: Doing What Matters Most to Change the Odds for Student Success and co-author of The 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching and Balanced Leadership for Powerful Learning: Tools for Achieving Success in Your School. Before joining McREL in 1998, Bryan was a college instructor, a high school teacher, and an award-winning business journalist:

No one said getting an education was supposed to be easy. When we teach students that struggle is a normal and even desirable part of the process—and when we respond to their struggle with praise, not punishment—they’re more likely to persevere and to feel positive about themselves. Failure, in other words, is a step toward success, and a healthy one at that. Sometimes this goes by the now-familiar name “failing forward.” Or as Ben Franklin put it, “Do not fear mistakes. You will know failure. Continue to reach out.”

However, simply heaping praise on students doesn’t necessarily develop their resilience. Yes, we’ve probably heard about the power of feedback—John Hattie calls for teachers to offer “dollops of feedback.” But poorly delivered feedback—even praise—can have negative effects on achievement as Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck discovered through a clever series of experiments, which found that praising students by telling them they are smart had a detrimental effect on their achievement and willingness to take on challenging tasks.

In the experiments, students were divided into two groups. Students in the first group were consistently praised for their ability. They were told, for example, “Wow. You got eight right. That’s a really good score. You must be really smart at this.” Students in the second group were praised for effort; they were told, “Wow. You got eight right. That’s a really good score. You must have worked really hard at this.” Students began the experiment “exactly equal” in terms of ability and motivation. Yet over time, those praised for smarts began to develop a fixed mindset, seeing their own aptitude as something innate and unchanging. Thus, they began to reject more challenging tasks, fearing that if they tried and failed at them, they’d no longer be seen as smart of special. On the other hand, 90 percent of students praised for effort were not only willing to accept challenging tasks, but they actually enjoyed doing them. In a word, they became more resilient.

So, the key is to draw attention to effort, rather than ability. Thus, “I’m proud of how hard you’ve worked at this” is more likely to motivate than “You’re good at this.” In The 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching, we offer these examples to clarify what it means to communicate a growth mindset.

Yes, these are subtle distinctions, but words have power. And I’ll admit it’s easy to slip back into communicating a fixed mindset, often when we’re providing praise. I do it myself sometimes with my own kids; they bring home a good grade or report card, and I find myself cooing about how smart they are. So, yes, I’m still working on it but know I’ll get better at it with more effort. 😉

Response From Dr. Laura Greenstein

A lifelong educator, Dr. Laura Greenstein has served as a teacher and school leader, professor and professional-development specialist. Her passion for excellence in assessment is evident in her numerous books, articles, and blogs on the topic:

Empowering Resilient Learners and Assessors

Resilience is an essential element of self-regulation in that it suppresses our immediate knee-jerk response to an unreasonable request, challenge, or disappointment. However, resilience is neither a rubber band that can snap when tugged too forcefully nor is it Silly Putty that can be molded into almost anything. Resilience also requires adaptability: the capacity to adjust to changes in circumstances and conditions.

How do we know if students are resilient in adaptable ways? How can they show, both cognitively and emotionally, their ability to adapt to changing ideas, information, and events? While there are large-scale measures, designed for professional use such as the International Resilience Project, it is in the classroom that assessing the dispositions and behaviors of resilience such as self-regulation, flexibility, perseverance, and self-efficacy can be embedded directly within teaching and learning. Resilience is bolstered by purpose, focus, and ownership. Here are some ideas to use in your setting.

Deconstructing and Gradual Release of Responsibility (Purpose)

  • Reduce student overwhelm by deconstructing complex standards into achievable and assessable outcomes. Some standards are explicit such as “persevere in solving problems.” Others imply it through problem-solving, reasoning, and critical thinking. Teaching and learning begins when students can rephrase learning expectations in their own words. For the standard: “interpret figures of speech,” start with a whole-class demonstration of “I do, We do, You do.” Then students can work collaboratively to explain and analyze Shel Silverstein’s “The Voice Inside You.” In due course, they individually explain what Alicia Keys means by “her head in the clouds.” Peer and self-score learning using a rubric that includes focus, detail, clarity, and connections.

Monitoring and Tracking (Focus)

  • Include resilience skills in learning trackers where students monitor their own progress. Provide opportunities for students to annotate places where they felt discouraged or overwhelmed. Ask them to explain what they did to adapt to the situation or alternatively, what opportunities the learning offered for them to practice resilience. Yona explains “When I got to step 4 in the experiment, I didn’t understand what to do next and was discouraged by how hard it was becoming. I wanted to pound my fists on the table but instead, put my fists in the air, so Mr. Waldrop knew I needed help. He sent me over to see how Harley did this step. Then I was ready to get back to work.”

Engaging and Empowering (Ownership)

  • Offer options and opportunities for students to show what they know and can do. A project may give Samantha opportunities to be creative in summarizing what she learned, but for Yustafa, an empty outline with places to insert the unit vocabulary is more structured and thus safer. Provide opportunities for students to annotate their responses, noting gaps in learning, areas of high and low confidence, along with explanations of their thinking and reasoning. Rosa says, “I picked the word ‘dime’ to define because in Spanish it means ‘tell me.’ Now I realize the character was referring to the cost of bread in that era.”

The world around us has so many opportunities to learn and practice resilience. In the classroom, routinely acknowledge evidence of improvement and success. Consider statements such as “Reba, you fulfilled your behavioral contract by showing adaptability when you chose a different book,” “Yanna, you helped your group stay on task.” Ask students to offer similar affirmations to themselves and others.

Response From Margaret Searle

ASCD author Margaret Searle has been a teacher, principal, and curriculum supervisor, and she has served as an adviser for elementary and secondary education to President George H. W. Bush. She currently serves as an educational consultant to districts across the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. Her favorite topics are: practical ways to apply brain research in classrooms, how to diagnose and prescribe for behavior and academic problems, and ways to strengthen executive-function skills:

Resilient people are happier, build better relationships, and experience less hopelessness and anxiety than those who lack this trait. So, what causes some people to become overwhelmed and fall victim to adversity or traumatic events while others face the same types of challenges with confidence, purpose, and empathy? Resilience is the capacity to recover quickly when facing challenges or adversity. It’s the ability to shift the way you are thinking when life throws stressful situations your way.

Fortunately, resilience is a skill we can teach. Students respond more flexibly and recover from stress more quickly when teachers help students become aware of their current state (emotions or skills) and teach strategies for shifting energy and perspective.

Here are three classroom tips for building resilience based on the work of Harvard neuropsychiatrist Dr. Dan Siegel.

  1. Teach students how their brains work. A simple way to help kids visualize what’s going on inside their heads is to talk about the “upstairs brain” (cerebral cortex) and “downstairs brain” (brain stem and limbic region) and how the two need to work together. The upstairs brain plans, problem solves, and calms us down. The “downstairs brain” processes and expresses feelings and alerts us to threat. When the downstairs brain panics, it is important to be able to calm ourselves down enough for the upstairs brain to make good choices. When students have the language to describe what is happening in their brain and have learned self-calming skills, they become more confident about participating in conversations that help them respond in healthy ways.
  2. Connect Before You Redirect. When adults honor student feelings before suggesting solutions or demanding changes, students are more likely to respond positively. Begin by being aware of what effect your body language is having on the child. A pat on the back, a look of genuine concern as you make eye contact, a soothing tone of voice, sitting down and leaning forward so you are at their eye level are prime examples of ways to open students to communication. Start conversations with simple feeling statements like, “I know it is sometimes hard to be a kid” or “This is a long assignment. You are looking tired and frustrated.” Then pause to allow the student to verify that you “get it.” Once you are connected to the student emotionally, the discussion about ways to solve the problem are more productive. Remember that the upstairs brain cannot respond positively until the downstairs brain feels safe and understood.
  3. Name It to Tame it. Teaching students language to describe their feelings creates a keener awareness of their emotions and helps them match their level of energy to the correct situation. For example, excited and boisterous are fine for the playground or football game but aren’t helpful in a library. In this case, self-calming strategies are helpful. Feeling tired or sluggish is great if it is time to go to sleep but doesn’t work if you should be taking notes during class. Knowing strategies for increasing energy is helpful in this situation.

Teaching students to describe what is going on in their heads and providing options for responding by raising or lowering their own energy levels give students tools they need for self-regulation and becoming more resilient.

Response From Jon Saphier

Author of High Expectations Teaching (Corwin, 2017), Jon Saphier is the founder and president of Research for Better Teaching Inc., an educational consulting organization in Acton, Mass., that is dedicated to the professionalization of teaching and leadership. Since 1979, he and his RBT colleagues have taught in-depth professional-development programs centered on the knowledge base of teaching to educators in more than 200 school districts each year in the United States and other countries:

When a student is identified as resilient despite trauma or seemingly overwhelming negative life circumstances, the literature always finds one common element: There was a significant adult who believed in the student and conveyed that belief in credible ways. That significant adult may be a relative, a neighbor who takes a special interest, a parent, a club or team leader, or a teacher.

Teachers who get students to overcome odds are always “warm demanders” (Bondy & Ross, 2008). They show they care by building personal knowledge of the student and conveying interest in their lives. But beyond that, they hold them to high standards of behavior and academic work. Furthermore, they directly teach them the skills of effective effort (i.e., dealing effectively with Time, Focus, Resourcefulness, Use of Feedback, Commitment, and Persistence). And in parallel, they teach them the techniques for being skillful students. They will often use Modeling Thinking Aloud to show the student what using a technique looks and sounds like (e.g., how to solve word problems; decoding a word from context that they don’t recognize).

For teachers to get low-performing, low-confidence students to the “resilience” stage may take a surround-sound environment that communicates, “This is important; You can do it; and I won’t give up on you.” But it is regularly accomplished by committed educators. At Research for Better Teaching, we have 25 years of case studies to prove it.

Such an environment shows up in daily teacher language, in structures and routines that embed belief, and in the direct teaching of certain cognitive strategies and habits of effective effort. These are profiled in detail in High Expectations Teaching (Saphier 2017).

The underlying thread for these outstanding teachers is that they refuse to accept students’ stereotypes of themselves or the inevitability of color, race, or socioeconomic status as determinants of success. They reject the concept of fixed “ability” and believe in their own capacity to influence students’ lives.

If the commitment to get students to believe in themselves is an element of successful teaching, that is a way our work resembles the clergy more than a craft. But of course, it is both.

Thanks to Bryan, Laura, Margaret, and Jon for their contributions.

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A previous version of this article had the title Response: Teach Students That ‘Failure Is a Step Toward Success’.
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