Have you heard this before?
[Insert name here]’s grades are fine; I’m not worried about that, but she just doesn’t seem to love learning anymore.
Jessica Lahey has a new book: The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed. The book came out earlier this school year, but the topic is evergreen!
In the The Gift of Failure, Lahey talks about wanting the world for her children. Yet, the very things she has done to encourage the sort of achievement she feels will help them secure happiness and honors may be undermining their future success.
Lahey gives the example of Marianna.
“She is very smart and high-achieving, and her mother reminds her of that on a daily basis. However, Marianna does not get praised for the diligence and effort she puts into sticking with a hard math problem or a convoluted scientific inquiry. If that answer at the end of the page is wrong, or if she arrives at a dead end in her research, she has failed—no matter what she has learned from her struggle. And contrary to what she may believe, in these more difficult situations she is learning. She learns to be creative in her problem-solving. She learns diligence. She learns self-control and perseverance. But because she is scared to death of failing, she has started to take fewer intellectual risks. She has trouble writing rough drafts and she doesn’t like to hypothesize or think out loud in class. She knows that if she tries something challenging or new, and fails, that failure will be hard evidence that she’s not as smart as everyone keeps telling her she is. Better to be safe. Is that what we want? Kids who get straight As but hate learning? Kids who achieve academically, but are too afraid to take leaps into the unknown?”
Fear of failure also rears its ugly head when children are doing homework. Not long ago, I spoke with a parent who hired a tutor the moment their child began struggling with math homework. This was a very well-intentioned thing to do. Providing a tutor is not an inherently bad idea. It can be one way to avoid power struggles at home when a child, as typical older elementary children do, can resist help from Mom or Dad. Nevertheless, we also have to be cautious about overemphasizing the importance of getting a correct answer. As an educator, I would much rather see a child come in with scratch paper detailing the approach(es) they tried on the homework and a WRONG answer than a right answer without the struggle and creative critical thinking.
I encourage parents and caregivers to think about how we can foster creativity and diligence in our children and worry less about homework coming back to school with correct answers. Each night’s homework is a form of formative (informal) assessment, and teachers often modify their lesson based on how students do on homework.
As a school, we have designed our program with emphasis on each student achieving and striving to beat their personal best. It's the reason why we honor character, perseverance and bucketfilling even more than academic achievement. It's the reason why we utilize cutting-edge developmental programs like Writing Workshop, Words Their Way, and the Columbia University reading assessment system. These programs enable students to work for their personal best and receive specific feedback about what to try next. And it's the reason you'll hear our teachers choosing their words with the care and precision of a surgeon!
I think it's safe to say that our shared goal is to help our children develop into well-adjusted, confident, balanced individuals. Getting an occasional low grade in elementary school should not be a source of anxiety or frustration , but rather it should be looked at as a chance to learn something. As you look over the trimester 2 report cards with your child, I encourage you to look at a B or a C (or an S) as an opportunity to show even more determination and perseverance in the final trimester of the school year. Focus on the process, and the product will be just fine!