These are the code words these days. You've probably read the recent article by Jessica Bennet in the New York Times, about an initiative at Smith to help students deal with failure. It's an interesting article, with discussion of not only Smith's initiative, but several other schools' work in the same area.
The basic idea is that the students at these schools have never really experienced failure, and then when they get into college and don't do as well at something (they're talking B-land grades and such as failure), the students have difficulty dealing with it. First recognized, according to the article, at Stanford and Harvard as "failure deprived," these students basically haven't fallen down and picked themselves up enough to shrug off the next fall.
The article talks about programs at Stanford, Cornell, Harvard, Princeton, U of Pennsylvania, U of Texas-Austin, UCLA, and Davidson College, all of which encourage students to try things and be willing to fail at them.
I gather from Meansomething (in a facebook conversation, mostly) that there's so much pressure and competition to get into the right college that High School students are being taught to focus primarily on what they're good at, and not to try as much new stuff that they're not already good at. That way, they get to show how wonderful they are on transcripts and stuff, and don't have to risk having that poor grade in [subject they aren't already good at] to hold them back.
I guess I have a couple issues with the idea.
First and foremost: The schools listed above pretty much are all way elite.
NWU isn't elite. But I've had relatively few students in my time at NWU who have emotional difficulty when they fail. Usually, they mess up on something, get a little upset, and either work harder, figure out how to do better, or get over it and mess up some more. If the colleges told their admissions offices that they want students who've demonstrated an ability to fail and deal productively with that failure, they'd get a different population of students, probably including some like my own. Those schools can change their perceived problem if they decide they're willing to risk admitting students who've demonstrated failure and resilience.
In fact, I'm guessing their really exciting students have already experienced lots of failure and recovery.
Which brings me to my second point: if you're doing anything difficult and working to your capacity at it, you're failing a fair bit. That goes for athletes, musicians, scientists, humanists, everyone.
I bet every single day, Yo-Yo Ma fails at something in his cello practice/playing. His failure's probably pretty much at the level of not playing quite as he wants a given piece, or missing a fingering slightly, or whatever. But he's a darned good cellist, and yet working at his level, challenging himself, he probably fails a lot. And then he practices more, and in performance, most of us wouldn't hear the slight imperfection that he knows is there at some point or other.
The same goes for athletes. How many incompletions did Joe Montana throw. A lot. But he also threw some amazing, beautiful passes.
A high school musician who's really doing their thing is failing a lot, and then practicing some more, and dealing with it. The same with an athlete.
But if all the science students are doing is cook book science, following recipes in the chem lab and getting an A for following directions well, then they aren't really doing science, and they aren't really working at a high enough level. Of course, there's a point at which chem students have to learn basic stuff without being in danger of blowing up their schools. But somehow, they aren't doing in their field what the musician or athlete is doing in theirs; they aren't figuring out what's been done before, a bazillion times, on just some level for themselves.
The musician playing a C major scale isn't doing something new. And they should have guidance. And yet, they're doing something cognitively different than following a chem class recipe book, no?
That Girl Scout who plans a camping trip, even with adult guidance, is doing the cognitive work, and may fail on some level, in fact, probably will. And hopefully, she'll learn from that failure.
I'm guessing the really exciting students at Stanford or wherever, are the ones who've done something like music, athletics, scouting, started a business or community project, failed, and figured out how to go on again.
And I'm guessing the ones who are less resilient, less able to deal with failure, are the ones who've done really good work at cook book chemistry (or whatever). They've followed directions really well, and worked hard to do things just right. And they did things just right.
So how do high schools teach students to fail? Or would it be enough for colleges to look for signs of successful failures when they're admitting students?
I'm not picking on chemistry, but it seems to me, from my own experience, that beyond learning basic lab safety and procedures, I didn't do much chemistry in my chemistry labs, not in two years in high school, not in several years in college. And I don't know if there's a way that could be done differently, since there's so much pressure to teach large numbers of students in lab classes. But somehow, in biology, we did little actual experiments, often trying to grow some plant with this or that different condition, and sometimes, they failed.
Can students productively fail assignments/exercises in my courses? There's certainly lots of room for students to fail at their research projects on some level and still get an A on the project for failing well. (When they really try to learn something and run into a brick wall, and learn something else, for example.) But other work?
What about you? Did you fail and learn from it early? Or no?
Do you teach students how to fail?
Learning violin is taking me to whole new levels of failure these days. But Strings says that she's never satisfied with her performance at a concert, even though other folks don't even realize she's made a mistake or something. She just has expectations about the level of playing she wants, and doesn't (she says) ever quite get there fully.
The good news is that I'm improving on violin by failing and working through difficulties.