Curious Kids Science

Teaching our kids to fail well

Teaching our kids to fail well

I have been doing quite a bit of reading lately about the concept of creating a “growth mindset” in children. Have you heard of it?

The topic is detailed when it is fully explained. In an effort to talk about growth mindset without writing an essay and without oversimplifying it, I’m going to share some observations with you about a single idea that has struck me as being particularly powerful. In order to succeed we must learn how to fail.

I remember once completing a survey about myself. One of the questions was “what do you fear most?” I answered “failure”.

My answer was serious. In my teens and twenties I feared failure more than I feared death. I know that I was not alone.

In part, I think that my fear of failure arose from a belief that it was somehow permanent. Once I had failed at something, there would be no recovering.

I’ll give you an example. I missed a considerable amount of school in years 5 and 6 due to illness. As a result, I missed maths classes and I did not find it easy to catch up. When I started high school, I was therefore behind in maths. I needed certain prior knowledge to do the new work and I didn’t have it.

I formed the belief that I was bad at maths. From this followed a dislike of all of the maths topics that we covered (even the ones where I did have the requisite prior knowledge) and a reluctance to bother with improving my skills.

By year 11, my struggle with maths had become unbearable and I knew that even though “maths was not my thing”, I needed to get some help if I was going to make it through the year without losing my mind. I got a tutor. Within 3 months, I had gone from barely scraping passes to coming 13th out of 120 kids studying 2 unit maths in a particular exam. I was pleased but I believed that it was a fluke. Having gained the skills to get along under the radar again, I stopped the tuition and went back to being disinterested in the topic that I was no good at.

Looking back, I see that I had a classic fixed mindset. The idea that our abilities are fixed in particular areas and that no amount of effort will really change them. There is now extensive scientific evidence to show that this is not true, and that any person can be good at anything. They key is to work at it.

“Uhu”, I see you nodding vaguely. “Thanks for the trip down memory lane, but what has that got to do with my kids?”

Actually, it could just be the key to their success.

We need to teach our kids not that failure is something to be dreaded or avoided but that it is something that they should use as a stepping stone to success. They can do that by seeing failures and struggles as opportunities to find meaning and to improve understanding.

There is neurological evidence that indicates that we learn more powerfully and more permanently when we learn through making a mistake, rather than getting things right the first time around. The same is true when we struggle and spend time unscrambling or making meaning from problems that elude us in the first instance.

 

A good example from my own experience related to a subject I believed that I was good at - English.

When I received a very poor mark for a particular essay that I wrote in an exam in year 11, I felt disappointed but not defeated. Instead I bought a book on how to write essays in exam situations, I spoke to friends who had done well on the exam and asked how they had approached it, I prepared practice essays under exam conditions at home. I then received the highest mark in the class on an essay question in the next round of exams. I saw that mark as being an accurate reflection of my inherent abilities in English, rather than as the result of significant, sustained efforts towards improvement.

Looking back, I know that if I had applied the same focus to my failures in maths, the outcome is likely to have been equally positive.

In the real world, science and maths are disciplines that are all about learning from failure. Developments in these areas are often made iteratively, that is, learning what works through a process of eliminating what doesn’t.

When we come to see failures as necessary steps on the path to success, then no failure is insurmountable and no failure has resulted in a waste of time or effort. Instead, while a failure may be disappointing, it is also a source of valuable information about what doesn’t work.

Better still, it’s a lesson that is likely to stay long after a correctly memorised formula has disappeared!

What do you think about kids and failure? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section!

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