Saturday, October 06, 2012

failure is not an option-- it's required

I've been thinking a lot about mistakes lately. As a culture, I'm not so sure we have a healthy relationship with making mistakes. Think about it-- what happens when you screw up at work, or your kid messes up at school? It feels like someone dropped a bomb on your soul, and it often takes time to climb out of that hole. And yet... no learning comes without a mistake being corrected. So which attitude is the right one? Can we even define 'right' in this situation? I mean, I don't want my students to fail classes in order to learn the material... but if they know it all and don't make some mistakes, what's the point of spending time on it?

That is the spiral I've been circling through for a while now. And so far, it's taken me 4 days to write this post, which is still not getting to the heart of the matter for me.

As with everything that matters in life, this is not a black and white issue.

The challenge is figuring out which mistakes are helpful-- which help you grow as a person, an employee, a learner, a spouse-- and which are just plain old 'stupid' mistakes that send you backwards. It turns out, unsurprisingly, that intent matters. Did you intend to fail, or were you trying to succeed but missed a key concept along the way? Have you made this mistake in the past and failed to learn from it? Or all those other times you screwed up, were you not ready to learn it but now that switch in your brain gets flipped? Someone says it takes 30 times of doing something for it to be a habit, and little kids have to fall down 100 times before they learn how to stay up. So why do we expect perfection from then on out?

Another little musing of mine is what we do once the mistake is made. We're big on punishment-- suspension, jail time, a letter in the proverbial office file-- but not nearly focused enough on restitution. This leads in with my 'natural consequences' rant-- if my kid refuses to eat what we have for lunch, they're going to be hungry. They'll have to decide which is worse-- the hunger pains at 3 PM or the texture of squash. A simple, non-judgemental consequence that follows a choice made by a texture sensitive person. But the idea that I'd not feed them lunch to punish them for breaking the living room window? That just makes no sense to me, and seems like it might lead to a bit of anger that we'll have to then deal with later.* And we still have a broken window that needs to be cleaned up and replaced.

*To date, neither of my children has been denied food (far from it, those spoiled darlings) nor have any windows been harmed, in the writing of this post or otherwise.

 As I'm sure you've surmised, I am a fan of the 'you break it, you bought it' school of parenting. You jumped in the mud puddle and got your new shoes all muddy? Get cleaning. Broke a window? Now seems like the perfect moment to learn how to clean up broken glass. So losing your license for drinking and driving? I'm all for it. Getting jail time for refusing to believe you've lost your right to drive? You bet, because clearly you're a risk to someone else innocently driving down the road. Suspensions from school because you're a danger to other kids works for me. Suspensions because you skipped a detention which you were given because you skipped class? I can't even fathom how crazy that is.

There's so much about mistakes and the ensuing learning that should come from making them tied up in our schools, but we can't get to the heart of it. Between the fear of being labeled one of the 'lowest performing schools', or needing a CIPs (Continual Improvement Plan, I think) plan, or having your school average national test score printed in the local paper (which might not be the worst thing ever now, since newspapers are dying out... but the internet sure isn't...) there's a lot of motivation to downplay mistakes. Schools lose federal funding when they land in one of these naughty categories, and less funding only leads to bigger problems.

I would love to get to a point where I don't have to grade kids in class. This is part of what appeals to me about standards based learning-- when you demonstrate you have met a certain standard (communicating your ideas to an audience, let's say) there is no judgement about whether you did it 97% right, or 78%, or 42%. You did it, or you're still working on it. What holds me back, however, is that we are always comparing. Do you may have met the standard, but Susie over there exceeded the standard... and just like that, we're back in the comparison business. Customized learning is the newest buzz in education, and there are parts of that philosophy that I embrace wholeheartedly. If the standard is persuasive writing, why can't Johnny show it by creating a commercial, Mary by writing the standard essay, and Susie by presenting a speech? You might say that Johnny then doesn't have to write anything, but creating a script for a commercial is writing, and may be more relevant to him than a 5 page essay. I'm on board with that, 100%, because I think the 'student failures' that come out of that model are more on line with mistakes we can learn from, and in the end, they succeed when they finish whatever project they're doing.

At the end of the day, I want us to learn from our mistakes. All of us, whether we're the movie star who keeps getting busted for drug and alcohol use, the politician who makes a shady side deal, the teacher who spells something wrong on a note that goes home, or the student who doesn't like to write. None of us like our dirty laundry aired in public, so it's never fun to say "Hey, look at how stupid I am by what I just did wrong!" But sometimes that's what it takes to learn from what happened and move forward.

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