I was asked today how I think my daughters’ school views failure and I cringed. I hate that word. It is so full of rot and worms and gut-wrenching stink. The first thing I did was to reframe the conversation in terms of mistakes, and then I dug in deeper.
I don’t know where we as a society got the notion that mistakes aren’t allowed, or at least that only mistakes of a certain type are allowed. I remember teachers handing papers back to me with a final grade written on them in red ink at the top and feeling either defeated or elated depending on the score (which I rapidly translated from a number score to a letter grade in my head, don’t you know). I remember accepting that this was the way it was. You get one chance to take that test or write that essay and the grade you get is the grade you get. But that isn’t real life, is it? And it certainly isn’t a reasonable expectation. I think if we asked, no parent or school official or teacher would say that they expect their students to come in, sit through a lecture, absorb everything the teacher says, and perform perfectly on an exam. Desire? Yes. Expect? No. Schools are for learning, and learning simply can’t happen without missteps.
Last year, Eve had a math teacher who expected the girls to turn in corrections on their math homework. If it was clear to him that they hadn’t quite understood or mastered the content by the looks of their math papers, he would return them to the girls and ask them to rework the problems they had answered incorrectly. He offered to stay in at lunch or after school to pore over the papers with students who just hadn’t quite figured it out yet because his goal was that each of his students truly learn the material he was teaching. He didn’t have a bell curve he was working toward. He wasn’t compelled by some external drive to “get through” a certain amount of material. He wanted these girls to understand what he was teaching and he lived it every day.
How often do we get “corrections” in life? Everywhere, I’d say. Just because I try out a new recipe one night and it bombs, my family doesn’t ‘fire’ me from cooking anymore. I’m not branded a failure in the kitchen and asked not to return. Life is about reworking problems, looking back to see where we went wrong and making it a little better next time. Unfortunately, I think we don’t offer our kids that much slack at school. So many students are frantic to turn in perfect papers that they stay up all night tweaking every last detail or resort to buying someone else’s work to turn in. They take round after round of pre-SAT tests in order to increase their scores as much as possible before applying to colleges. They give up on themselves if they can’t master a particular subject, or if they can’t master school itself. We are doing them a disservice if we continue to send them the message that there is only one way to learn and if they don’t figure it out, they’re doomed.
One of the biggest reasons I love the school my daughters attend is that the teachers embrace mistakes. They expect mistakes. They encourage the girls to step outside of their comfort zone and try things they are afraid of just to see what happens. Yes, they have high academic standards, but those standards revolve around comprehension and utilization of the material they are taught, not regurgitating memorized material on a test or being at the top of the bell curve. Their teachers believe that one of the biggest components of learning is not knowing. I mean, honestly, isn’t that the only prerequisite for learning? That you don’t already know? In this equation, effort and resilience are the most important traits a student can have, and given that those characteristics are vital to the rest of their lives as well, don’t we want to instill them in our kids instead of some completely unattainable ideal of perfection?