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.