Monday, June 26, 2017

Failure and Resilience

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.


  1. Thank you for putting your finger on part of what I found "off" about that piece (and the elite part, but I knew that--like yours my students have not generally been sheltered from failure). I think you're exactly right that the more ambitious and talented a student is, the more likely he or she would have encountered failure. My frustration when I taught elite undergrads was not that they couldn't deal with failure (or, you know: a B grade), but that they rose to the challenge immediately and expected that they'd be an immediate, steady improvement. They were okay with being knocked down, but figured buckling down would be enough to solve the problem, and that they'd triumph by the end of the semester. And sometimes building skills just takes longer than that, and there are major plateaus.

    I also think that many, many students, even at elite schools, have had personal struggles: parents' divorce, illness, romantic failures. On some level I guess I just don't believe that most 19-year-olds haven't experienced failure. Whether they've learned how to handle it, though, or not fear it or shy away from it--that might be something that genuinely needs work.

  2. In high school, I was on the STEM track, and got A grades in all my math and science courses. Then, when I was 17, my best friend/crush/love of my life at the time died in a freak accident. It changed my life utterly. I ended up failing Calculus the fall of my senior year and couldn't do the honors program as a result.

    All through high school, I consistently got Bs in my English classes and was told I was an okay, but not great writer, despite the fact that I read and wrote constantly. I was told that my reading comprehension was poor.

    So despite the fact that I love English as a subject, I ended up majoring in music in college. It was equal parts fun and nightmarish. Think of making a hobby your job for four years, and doing it so much that you want to puke every time you think of it. Yeah, I graduated, but I didn't touch an instrument again for almost 11 years. That felt pretty much like a failure -- and an expensive one. 56K in student loans from my undergrad years, which I added another 44k to in grad school.

    I made it through grad school and got my PhD even though my committee members believed (I later learned) that I would quit without a degree because I had a baby. I didn't. I finished a year later than I had expected, but I did finish. Win! But then, as all readers of my blog know, it took FIVE long years to get a full-time job. I had interviews. I failed. I kept applying. I had the luxury of having a husband who supported my dreams -- a luxury few others have. But I failed to get a really great job. I got an okay job. Still, it's a job, and I'm grateful (mostly).

    I started writing fiction when I was young -- around 11 or 12 years old, but it took until I was 40 to publish a single story legitimately. (Without publishing it myself in a writing group I was in. It wasn't a serious publication if someone wasn't vetting it, in my opinion.) I have been rejected by over 150 literary agents when I was trying to get my 2010 novel published. It's still not published -- none of the four novels I've written have been published. Fail. I have so many writing rejections I can't count them. But I've published 7 short stories and a poem in about a year and a half, which makes all those rejections seem worth it. I've published some scholarship, but I've had a lot rejected. A lot! I just keep trying though.

    I think that failure has shaped my life in ways that I rarely think about. The article made me wonder what would have become of me if I had not failed so much. I think my situation is unique in some ways, though, because not only do I have a really supportive spouse, I've also been in therapy almost my entire life. (Starting at age 10.) So I've had space to deal with those failures with supportive people. And I needed a lot of support because my parents basically told me that I WAS a failure and always would be. It took a lot of other people's belief in me and a LOT of therapy to deal with those feelings of "never good enough" and "total failure" that my parents planted. As a result, when people tell me I can't do something, I try to do it just to prove them wrong. That's worked out for me in a lot of ways. Audacious risk taking has become a hallmark of my academic career at HU. We'll see if it pays off this year when I go up for tenure.

    But if I fail to get tenure, I have the strength of my failures to know that I will be okay. This is the biggest goal of my life to this point -- to be a tenured faculty member. If I fail at that, it will hurt, but it won't crush. I'm armed with failures past. I'll survive.

  3. Steve Jobs's motto was "fail early and often." The flip side of this (and a cause?) is the insistence on "you can do anything you want to do" and "persist even in the face of repeated failure." No. Example: I have never been able to turn a cartwheel despite many and valiant efforts over the decades. I had to accept that maybe I'm not cut out to turn cartwheels. Maybe my talents lie in other directions,

    Although Clint Eastwood is not my avatar in any other way, I'm a believer in a line from one of his movies: "A man's got to know his limitations,"

  4. Until I tried to learn Aikido I had never before failed at anything I seriously tried to do. (I failed at things, like math in high school, that I didn't care about and so didn't put any real effort into.

    I've written about my experience with Aikido -- how good it was for me, as a human being and a teacher, to realize what it feels like to try as hard as you can to do something and *still* fail horribly.

    All this to say I think Undine (above) is right. It's good to know what it's like *not* to be able to do something. We can't all do anything we decide to do. I'll never be good at Aikido. (I did get better at it, but I was never any good.)

    Same for some of our students and some of what they're trying to learn. It's possible that they can fail despite trying hard. That's an important thing to learn.