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Teaching About Failure Is Not Just an Option -- It's a Necessity

Categories: Education & Teaching, Learning Disabilities

by Julie Bierman learning-disabilityYou’re a teacher. And it’s August. No matter your feelings about the start of the school year, there’s no question that you’ll soon face an avalanche of curriculum planning, classroom preparation, and meetings (oh, the meetings!). Messages you receive from sources all around you are generally positive, forward-thinking, and upbeat. So this one might seem counterintuitive, but it’s important, nonetheless. As you approach this new year, or at any time of the year, consider a paradigm where you teach your students that failure is something you actually expect. What?!? This is an era of high-stakes testing and Common Core requirements; it’s a time when more and more students with needs, both diagnosed and not, land in your classroom, and you’re expected to teach them all well.* A message to expect failure may seem like anathema. There are myriad reasons, however, why it’s perhaps one of the most important lessons you can teach your students – particularly those in your classroom who learn differently. Here’s why.
"Messages endorsing the value of effort over outcome are some of the most powerful ones you can share with your students."
Despite our best efforts, no matter how much kids enjoy learning, many dread the start of school. (Kids aren’t alone in this predisposition—I mean, who wants to give up the freedom of staying up later, sleeping later, and spending more time with family and friends?). And no matter what approach we take to teaching, each student’s stance as a learner is shaped by a number of factors, including his or her goal orientation and mindset. While understanding these ideas is important for all students, it’s particularly so for your students with learning disabilities. There’s lots of literature out there on both of these concepts, but here’s the skinny on what’s helpful to understand. Lee-Jimmy MoleculeGoal orientation was a term developed by psychologists in the 1980s to describe the social and cognitive factors that impact students’ achievement motivation. Individuals with a mastery orientation are motivated to face challenges as they try to gain understanding of new, sometimes difficult material, often setting their own goals for self-improvement. By contrast, individuals with a performance orientation are motivated either to demonstrate high ability and to make a good impression or to avoid looking bad and embarrassing themselves in some way. Kids who are secure as learners typically gravitate toward a mastery orientation; they tend to care less about getting things “wrong” and are more willing to take risks. Kids who are less secure, based on their past perceptions of academic failure, their lack of self-confidence, their own academic struggles, or what they perceive to be a less welcoming environment, often demonstrate a performance orientation; this is what drives some students away from participation, as they sometimes feel that non-participation is the best way to avoid looking “dumb.” (I once videotaped a fully-hands-on, hour-long lesson in a classroom that included a student on my caseload where he said and did absolutely nothing. When I asked him later what was up, as I knew the class was one he loved and the format of the activities had been right up his alley, he reported that he “didn’t want anyone being able to prove that [he’d] done something wrong” when they later watched the tape.)
"There are plenty of reasons to teach our kids that failure is not only something that happens to everyone, but that it’s necessary for growth."
A student’s goal orientation is also shaped by her or his mindset. Stanford professor Carol Dweck, PhD, is the individual who has led research in this area, and her findings are so powerful that the scope of her work has expanded beyond the fields of psychology and education; Dweck is regularly sought out as a consultant for businesses and sports teams who are looking to help their employees and athletes improve their performance. In a nutshell, mindset theory posits that individuals’ beliefs about themselves and their growth potential stem from their beliefs about whether abilities (such as intelligence or athletic skill) are innate and fixed or more malleable. mara_kippOver and over again, in study after study, Dweck and her colleagues have proven that individuals with a fixed mindset avoid risk, choosing easier tasks over harder ones in order to feel more secure in their ability and to avoid the risk of being evaluated in any way as incapable; these folks actually believe effort is a bad thing, because if you have to try hard, then you must not be innately capable. In one of Dweck’s most famous studies, fifth graders participated in a puzzle-completion experiment in which they were given a choice of re-doing easy puzzles or trying more challenging ones. Not only did the children with fixed mindsets choose the easier puzzles to complete, but they also reported a significant decrease in enjoyment when the puzzles were made harder, choosing not to continue (even when they were some of the best puzzle-solvers)—they lost interest when they feared they wouldn’t be able to prove themselves “smart” and “talented.” By contrast, kids with growth mindsets preferred hard puzzles and even asked to take them home, independent of their puzzle-solving abilities. (To see this for yourself, check out this video excerpt of the testing). The contribution of hard-wiring to goal orientation and mindset is something I see over and over in my clinical practice, and one of the pieces I often have to work the hardest to undo--kids who have repeated experience struggling in a host of ways when it comes to school often develop a performance orientation and a fixed mindset. This is true for many students with learning differences; because they’re kids who have more than their share of experience making mistakes or missing the mark, it becomes hugely important to them either to prove their own sense of competence and ability or to avoid taking any academic risk that could make them look bad. DC4Adoption of a performance goal orientation and a fixed mindset becomes a maladaptive coping strategy; while it temporarily helps them deal with a situation that otherwise feels out of their control, it at the same time prevents them from the kind of deeper learning in which we all want them to engage. Think about the kids you’ve taught who’ve developed clear personas—the class clown whose goal is to make others laugh, the diva who can’t be bothered to take you seriously, or the disaffected student who claims all that you put in front of him is “boring” or “a waste of time.” Each of these students in her or his own way is focusing more on others’ perceptions than on learning, and using behavior to cover a secret fear that growth may be impossible. Put all these pieces together, and there are plenty of reasons why it’s important to teach all our kids that failure is not only something that happens to everyone, but that it’s necessary for growth. The more we can help our students shake their fixed mindsets and become more growth-oriented, and the more we can teach them to worry less about their performance and more about their development as thinkers, the more we contribute to their stance as mastery-oriented students with mindsets that contribute to happier affects, to lower anxiety, to greater frustration tolerance, and to a host of other positive outcomes. As you begin this new year, remember that messages endorsing the value of effort over outcome and process over product coupled with regular, explicit discussion of how learning happens (through shared effort, hard work, and honest self-reflection) are some of the most powerful ones you can share with your students. Make sure you tell them that you EXPECT them to fail, as that, for sure, is the only way to grow. P.S. If you’re looking for a way to introduce this idea, consider playing your kids this very short video about failure. It’s tremendous!
* (According to 2014 statistics reported by The National Center for Learning Disabilities in The State of Learning Disabilities: Facts, Trends, and Emerging Issues, “A great deal is known about 5% of our nation’s school-age population whose learning disabilities have been formally identified. Data suggest that an additional 15% or more of students struggle due to unidentified and unaddressed learning and attention issues.”)
  Julie BiermanJulie Bierman is a speech-language pathologist in Baltimore, MD, in her 22nd year of working with students with language-based learning differences. A former outpatient therapist and diagnostician at the Kennedy Krieger Institute and a former learning specialist within an independent school setting, Julie has worked with physicians, psychologists, parents, and teachers to further understanding of how learning differences impact students across settings. Her direct work with students is focused on helping them understand themselves and their neuropsychological profiles so that they can self-advocate effectively, use their strengths to compensate for areas of weakness, and maximize their learning efficiency. Julie and her husband, a public school language arts teacher, are parents of two sons, ages 6 and 12.