Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Allure of Perfectionism

This was written by a student (and friend) involved with Challenge Success. We appreciate his wlllingness to share his personal story with us.

High school was the first time where I ever saw something other than a straight line on my transcript. I was shocked. But I should have seen it coming. My entire semester of AP calculus had been a grating experience, but being the stubborn student I was, I refused to really do much about it. Although I didn’t fail the class, seeing the physical manifestation of my struggles printed on an official document was a particularly humbling experience—especially because it was in a subject that I never expected to have difficulty in. 

In middle school I had been placed in an accelerated algebra class with a dozen other kids under the assumption that we would all be able to thrive in advanced courses designed for students two years our senior. The first few years weren’t easy, but still reasonably challenging, and I found myself excelling in the classroom. And it all went according to schedule. That is…until the first semester of my junior year.

Perhaps it was the overwhelming expectations that I was holding myself to which ultimately did me in. After all, nobody was making me take the class—I thought I was doing myself a favor by throwing myself into such a rigorous academic climate. I thought that the thrill of being stretched past my limits would make me stronger. And although I didn’t know exactly what ultimate goal I had in mind for myself, I gravitated towards the hardest classes and tried to get the best grades. Not really to quench a thirst for knowledge, but rather to see it all add up on paper, to go beyond excellence—to be perfect.

But the inherent paradox in “perfectionism” is that by its very definition, it promises a state of flawlessness which can never be obtained. Had I approached the class (or perhaps its less-rigorous equivalent) with a more realistic mindset, and not with the expectation that utterly brilliant formulas would spout out of my pen every time it touched paper, maybe it would not have become so overwhelming. At the same time, it is important not to confuse “perfectionism” with the pursuit of excellence that every person should be striving for. It is always in your best interest to be trying your hardest, but it is equally important to reconcile the fact that although “hardest” may look different for everybody, it never means “perfect.”

Episodes of failure are just as important as those of success. My struggles with high-level math pushed me outside of my comfort zone and forced me to think of new ways of coping that were invaluable later in my high school career and also in college. Once I had accepted my limitations, I asked my teacher for help, I formed study groups with my friends; I formulated new ways of studying which made profound differences down the road. Embracing disaster was difficult, and coming to terms with my personal flaws was even more so. However, it was far better to learn and move on, than to live with the crushing frustration that inevitably accompanies striving to attain the impossible.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Encouraging Failure to Promote Success
by Jennifer Trainor

I often ask my graduate students, all of whom plan to be teachers, an unnerving question:  how will they set up their classrooms so that failure is rewarded?  The question forces us to confront our fears, and assumptions, about failure: “Wouldn’t that just encourage laziness or lack of effort?” the grad students ask. “Give students permission to give up?” 

A similar fear often governs our parenting.  A friend confides that she’s worried: if her daughter doesn’t do well in school, she’ll lose confidence, and decide she’s just not that academic.  Not only do we worry that failure will mar our children’s chances at future success. We also worry that it will mar their very identities, hurt their self-esteem, and create a self-fulfilling prophesy, an acceptance of failure.

But if an identity built on failure is a problem, much research suggests that its opposite – an identity built on successful performance – can be equally problematic.  What happens when the daughter who gets 100% on every math test encounters a problem she can’t solve? What happens when the son who writes teacher-pleasing essays every time encounters an audience who doesn’t offer him the instant gratification of praiseful reward?  The value of failure is that it teaches resilience and, if handled right, can nurture an identity based not on perfection but on the willingness to try, to problem-solve, to self-critique and try again. 

Without such an identity, a child will learn to avoid challenging tasks: she will run from circumstances that threaten her identity as a “good test-taker.”  She will avoid situations – a challenging assignment, a hard teacher, the next level in the workbook -- that threaten her ability to perform as a “good student.”  I know, because this is the process by which I became “math phobic” in school.  Having developed an identity as a “good student,” I couldn’t tolerate a situation that challenged it.  And so I did what perfectionists do:  I declared myself “not a math person,” and avoided the subject all the way through graduate school.

I see such performance-oriented perfectionism in the college freshman I teach.

“What should I say in the assignment?” a typical “successful” student will ask. “Is there a rubric that says what you’re looking for?”

In these questions, I see the symptoms of perfectionism:  Where the student needs risk-taking, he exhibits caution. Where he needs intellectual engagement, he seeks external rewards. Where he needs problem-solving skills, he looks for answers in an authority figure.  Eventually, he will turn in a perfectly executed but intellectually empty essay, and he will not get an A. 

Now here’s the damning part. It’s early in the semester and rather than ask questions about what went wrong and learn from the experience, he will drop the class and shop around for another, less challenging, less threatening to his identity.

So how do we encourage problem-solving, rather than perfectionism? How do we nurture a positive stance toward failure?  The experts tell us to focus on effort, not performance.  In one fascinating study, two groups of students were given a test. All did well, but half of the students were then told that they must be good test-takers; the other half that they must have worked hard.  When they were given another test, guess which group out-performed the other? Those who were praised for innate abilities gave up on questions they couldn’t easily answer. Those who were praised for effort kept trying, and succeeded. 

With my own children, I’ve learned to praise the attitude, not the innate attribute. “You love playing that song,” I say, rather than “You’re good at the piano.”

“You’re determined to figure it out” (not, you’re so smart).

“You’re dedicated to this game” (not, you’re a great player).

What would it mean to take this a step farther: to praise children for courage in the face of failure? To remind them that failures are generative – they lead to exploration, problem-solving, and learning? Such a step might seem counter-intuitive, but paradoxically, allowing for failure, even encouraging it, may set children on a path to true success.

Jennifer Seibel Trainor is the author "Rethinking Racism," (Southern Illinois University Press), as well as several essays on education. She teaches in the English department at San Francisco State University, and lives with her family in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Failure, Adversity, Perseverance, SUCCESS
by Stephanie Rafanelli

A pack of ninth graders rush into my classroom and insist that I come to the girls’ bathroom as quickly as possible. One of their friends is sobbing and refusing to come out. Apparently, she has earned an A- on a quiz, her lowest grade ever. This bright and capable student is paralyzed by the idea of perceived “failure.”

Resilience and grit have been buzz words in both educational postings and the popular media recently. Resilience is the ability to recover from a challenging situation or set-back rather than being crushed by it. Grit is defined as:

perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress.
[Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews, and Kelly; Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2007, Vol. 92, No. 6, 1087–1101]

Explicitly embedded in the definition of resilience and grit is failure. In fact, the only possible way to develop and then demonstrate these traits is through experiencing adversity. In elementary school, we do a better job of encouraging this process, whether it is the difficulty of swinging across the entire set of ‘monkey bars,’ processing a rejection from a friend, or mastering a list of new spelling words. While each event may seem small, the child learns something valuable about himself and about the world. Each of these “successful failures” is recalled as he approaches the next big challenge.

However, in middle and high school, several factors coincide to make academic failure particularly fraught. Uneven cognitive, emotional, and physical growth, a newly keen awareness of others’ perceptions, and seemingly higher stakes all combine in dramatic fashion. Failures seem more visible and more consequential. By keeping the long-term view firmly in mind, educators and parents can diffuse the trauma. Expectations ought to be explicit and multiple opportunities for revision and mastery should be standard. Growth and effort can be emphasized over a singular incident. Assessments should include process and an opportunity for self-reflection.

A poor grade on a history test may feel devastating in the moment. In all likelihood, your child will survive, learn something about how to better prepare for the next test, and practice moving on from disappointment. It is critical that our children practice these small, successful failures so they are better emotionally prepared for the more powerful experiences that lay ahead. When the student sobbing in the bathroom arrives at college, will she select classes based on ones she knows she can ace? Or will she challenge herself and then be devastated when she earns a C on an assignment? Will she be resilient enough to persist until she succeeds? Loss of a job, the break-up of a relationship, a family sickness – life is full of surprises and disappointments. A lifetime of “successful failures” allows us to develop grit.

Stephanie Rafanelli is both a school coach and a parent education facilitator for Challenge Success. Stephanie has been a middle school science and math teacher for nineteen years. In addition to almost two decades in the classroom, she has served as department chair, both academic and also grade level Dean, a parent and faculty educator, and a leader of curriculum reform. She has founded and run several summer and afterschool programs such as Sally Ride Science Camp for Girls and Menlo Summer Explorations. Stephanie is an educational consultant for multiple organizations. When she is not thinking about education, Stephanie is usually creating chaos with her three children.

Monday, April 9, 2012

by Dr. Madeline Levine

Why Our Children Need Successful Failures:
And Plenty of Them

Remember your toddler’s first steps. Remember how your child let go of your leg or the sofa edge or the playpen railing, and on legs so wobbly that locomotion seemed impossible, he or she moved to take a step towards you. And you crouched down so your eyes were level with your teetering toddler and held your arms out so that there was a safe harbor to fall into. You held your breath, your own limbs quivered and your face urged your child to go, to try, to take those first steps.
One. Two. Oops.

Down on his well-padded butt with a look of stricken surprise on his face. But you smiled broadly, clapped in delight and erased the fear from his eyes with your own laughing eyes. You urged him to get up again, to try again. And he did. Again and again. Up, standing, teetering, swaggering, walking, running. A million fall downs and a million get up and do it agains. These forays were some of your young child’s earliest failures. But they were also necessary, strengthening his motor coordination, his resolve and his confidence. Few of us think of this as failure, but if success is about mastery, then falling on your butt is about failure - necessary failure, imperative failure, successful failure. Because without these failures your child would never have learned how to walk, how to run, how to ride a bike, play lacrosse or soccer. It is the rule, rather than the exception, that failure precedes success.

Yet, as our kids grow, we become not simply less enthusiastic about their failures, but far less tolerant. A poor grade, a missed goal, a school rejection all become harbingers not of future success, but of inevitable failure. “I can’t believe you got a C on your math final. That means you won’t be placed in advanced algebra and you might as well forget about those fancy schools you want to go to.” “You’ve practiced that kick a hundred times, how could you miss it when it really counted? You’ll never make the traveling team now.” “What happened in your interview? Did you blow it? Should I just sign you up for community college now?” While all of these parenting responses sound harsh, they are unfortunately not unusual. Not because we are awful parents intent on stripping our children of whatever modicum of confidence they possess, but because we actually are frightened that our children will be cutting off their “options” when they stumble.

This perception that mistakes and failures become increasingly fatal as our children grow is reinforced when schools do not allow their students to redeem themselves when they have an inadequate grasp of content. It’s kind of crazy to think that your child takes a test, may do poorly for a million different reasons, and then is expected to go on to the next level of content without ever having had the opportunity to master the original content. As a writer, I can assure you that the first draft of a book, without the opportunity to rework each and every sentence, would be a poor substitute for a polished manuscript. This is how all of us learn. We put ourselves out there, try something just beyond our easy reach, learn from our mistakes and then can move on to even greater challenges. In education, this is called the “just right challenge.” In the just right challenge, your odds of success can be 50/50- Successful enough of the time to feel confident, unsuccessful enough of the time to be challenged. Otherwise we’d all still be reading “Dick and Jane” books (boy does that date me!)

The same is as true of psychological development as of educational development. If your daughter gets blown off in the cafeteria by her best friend Kayla and you run right over to “talk it over with the girls” or even worse tell your daughter “to forget about Kayla, she’s a terrible friend,” then you’re not allowing your daughter to learn the emotional components that can buffer failure. What happened between her and Kayla? Is there some way to remedy the situation? How does she handle disappointment? What may feel briefly like a social failure has the potential to help your daughter learn the repertoire of coping skills – collaboration, maintaining self-control, being curious, compromise - that she will need to navigate the inevitable disappointments and failures she will encounter in life.

This isn’t to say that a kid who fails more than he or she succeeds doesn’t need attention. If this is chronic, he probably does. But if we go back to the model of mom and her newly mobile toddler, we see the most effective way to encourage learning and confidence. Allow mistakes, encourage them, tolerate failure and make sure your child knows that it is the continued attempt, the effort, and the perseverance that you value most. Remember Thomas Edison’s advice, “I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.” Enthusiastically share your own successful failures with your kids. Let zest, not discouragement, drive your child’s learning.