Failure, Mindset and Empowering Effort
- On 05-02-2015
I don’t know about you but the break over summer is always a time of reading and often a time of reflection. Whilst most of my reading is fictional (a summer habit that I have had since I was a kid when I read an average of 5 books a week) my work year normally starts with clearing out my email in-boxes of all the RSS feeds I get from the educational websites I follow – ASCD, David Didau, Teach Thought, New York Times Education, etc. My normal process is to have a brief read of each one and if I find it valuable and related to the areas that we as a consulting business are interested in then I curate it to one of our our Scoop.It pages. In this way I can keep track of a wide range of thinking and discussion about educational research and ideas. The most impactful articles I print out for possible use in future themed newsletters (like this one) or pass it on to schools as we work with them.
Two recent articles had me reflect deeply about failure, the mindset we could develop in our students, and how we as educators could empower effort in the learners around us.
The first article was written by Ron Friedman titled If you’re not failing, you’re not growing. Friedman begins his article telling the story of how Sara Blakely overcame remarkable obstacles to create the multimillion dollar Spanx underwear business. The key paragraphs for me were;
“Some parents are content asking their children, “Did you have a good day?” or “What did you learn at school?” Not at the Blakely household. The question Sara and her brother had to answer night after night was this: “What did you fail at today?” When there was no failure to report, Blakely’s father would express disappointment.
“What he did was redefine failure for my brother and me,” Blakely told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “And instead of failure being the outcome, failure became not trying. And it forced me at a young age to want to push myself so much further out of my comfort zone.””
My parents didn’t ask me or my two brothers such questions but my experience was that they never stopped any of us from taking things on. They expected us to contribute around the house, to the family, and be responsible for our actions. This is not to say we weren’t rat bags and never got into trouble – we were 3 boys remember – and our health insurance did get quite a workout over the years. Somewhere along the line I developed a strong growth mindset about the academic side of things and thus was the first member of the family to go to University and then go on to get a PhD.
The second article How to engage students in their own learning process is by Nina Smith, a Finnish teacher who blogs about her experience within the Finnish school system, student centred learning and developing intrinsic motivation within students. The paragraph that stood out for me was;
“One main problem is that “students are typically presented as the customers of engagement, rather than coauthors of their learning”. It is really, really hard to be intrinsically interested and very engaged with things you cannot control, or in activities that are mandated by someone else.”
If I look at my own life experience I am intrinsically engaged in those things I have control over. I suspect that if you look at your own experience you will find the same thing. One of the reasons I struck out to create my own consulting business, despite the challenges that faced us at the time and since, was that there was always some point where I became frustrated with the “mandated” hoops and side work I had to do to maintain my position in the organisations I worked for. Now that I am creating what I do each day and 100% responsible for how my days go I have no problem with engagement. It doesn’t mean that I don’t get stressed or anxious about certain things or that I am always successful, it just means I have no questions about what I am doing and why I am doing it. I find myself often taking on opportunities that I, on first look, haven’t got a clue how to do. I have learnt to figure it out – mainly in collaboration and discussion with others.
This leads me to my takeaway for learning within a school environment from the two articles. If we honestly want the students to be engaged in what they are learning, and to develop their capacity and skill to be lifelong learners, then it is critical to create the environment where they experience being, as Nina put it, the co-authors of their learning. This includes learning that failure is a stepping stone to success and developing strategies and process to deal with “non-success”.
I can hear the echoes from teachers and people in positions of leadership telling me “that’s all nice and good but how could we do that given we have a curriculum to cover?” I am not sugar coating it when I say that it is quite a big challenge. It is big because most schools I see are not structured culturally to create that type of learning environment. Just look around you now, does your school allow you as a teacher the freedom to be the co-author of your professional learning and development and to fail and then learn? Are you even given significant time to collaborate with your peers and develop new learning? I am not talking about the 2 hours you get once per week in meetings I am talking about the time you would get if you were studying a course at university. Are you told by school leadership about school-wide pedagogical initiatives (e.g. embedding formative assessment), have a couple of PD’s and then expected to implement the ideas? Or does the school take its time (sometimes years) to engage staff in a new pedagogical initiative and the teachers are supported with time, group and one-on-one discussions, peer feedback, etc to have the initiative embedded? Research does show that this is what works in schools.
One of the contracts I have been working on involves teachers from a range of secondary colleges taking on an 18 month action-research project in something that mattered to them and the school. The teachers had to build a case for action about the need for an initiative, get it vetted by the school leadership as well as by a university team, before articulating a plan for how they will go about it. It has been fascinating to watch and see the growth in thinking and practice of these teachers. This project for me, as a critical friend, has highlighted the importance of developing great change management processes within schools if we really want to change the nature of the learning environment for ALL learners within the school.
The bottom line, if you as a teacher or school leader, are ACTUALLY interested in developing a strong community of learners and learning within your school then there is work to do. It begins with saying “yes” and then figuring out how. To get you started I have included some articles that could spark some ideas and discussions with your colleagues.
Have a great start to 2015!
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