Learning to Fail Well: What Our Kids Need to Learn Most at the Age of Opting Out

Learning to Fail Well: What Our Kids Need to Learn Most at the Age of Opting Out

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There is currently a culture war waging in our nation over the benefits and consequences of using high stakes tests as an incentive to increase student achievement. Fearful and frustrated politicians, worried about America’s international standing in education, have become intent on using assessment as a tool to increase student motivation and to simultaneously measure teacher effectiveness. On the other side of the culture war are concerned and emotional parents, who see their children suffering from the stress, anxiety and possible failure induced by the institution of this new and more demanding testing paradigm. Tearful experiences at the dinner table and the potential consequences of diminished self-efficacy that may result from the more rigorous assessments have created a growing political Opt Out movement. This movement is driven by parents having their children opt out of the state tests in act of civil disobedience designed to bring the testing and accountability system to its knees. Lost in the culture war is the fact that both camps may be failing to see what it is that students really need to be successful in a more competitive world. Students need to learn to fail well.

In our caring and love for our children, we often refuse to let our children fail well or even fail at all. This idea of opting out if things get too tough is not a foreign concept in the world of lacrosse parenting. In our trophy culture, that world where every player gets a trophy, when our children fail to make their sports travel team, some parents have been known to opt out and form our own travel team. These caring parents have invested extensive treasure, time and effort so that that their children will never know the bitter taste of disappointment. If the high school athlete cannot start at attack at his school, it is not unprecedented on Long Island for lacrosse parents to opt out of their neighborhood high school and establish residency in a neighboring town where he can start at attack. The rate of transfer at Division I colleges is growing at an alarming rate as athletes opt out when they are unable to start as freshmen or sophomores. Worse yet, if our child is not scoring enough goals or saving enough shots, our attention may be fixated on the competence and fairness of the coach rather than needs in the effort, skill and ability of our child.

I know that by putting the words, fail and well, together, I have jarred your sensibilities and created what may seem to you like a cruel and senseless oxymoron. Bear with me for a paragraph or two and maybe it will make sense to you. The word, fail, has become a dirty word in America today. The words, fail and well, seemingly can never be combined in a relationship that makes any sense. After all, how can you fail well? At the heart of this sematic dissonance is the fact that defined by a culture today that cannot and will not tolerate failure in any realm. We have created a life for out children that cannot envision disappointment and struggle as potential growth experiences that might serve as the motivators for increased effort. This aversion to failure runs counter to everything we know about life, learning and success. After all, the underlying and most powerful reason that we play sports is the hope there is transfer in the struggles and resilience needed to succeed on a field or in a gym with those needed in life.

We all fail. Think back to riding a bike, learning to swim or doing long division, we all failed at first, got back up, took some coaching, put in more effort and ultimately succeeded. After a few bumps and bruises, we all rode the bike. The same can be said of our most inspiring American success stories, all of whom were at one time failures. Michael Jordan is one of America’s most celebrated failures. Legendary is the story of Michael’s having been cut from his JV basketball team and going on to rededicate himself and becoming one of America’s basketball players. What is assumed in the story is that the coach must have been an idiot and what is implied is that we cannot trust coaches to make decisions on our children’s competence. What is left out are the fact Michael never resented or implicated the coach and his words, “no one can or will ever know how hard I worked.’” Michael Jordan, fell forward, not blaming others, working harder with a greater sense of purpose. Too many of us fall backwards, blaming others, finding excuses and opting out. He did not attempt to get the coach fired, start his own team or move.

Our history is defined by famous failures from Steve Jobs to Walt Disney to Thomas Edison, Oprah and most recently, Tom Brady. All of these American legends failed well, refusing to let failure define them and rededicating their lives with greater effort after initial disappointment. The problem with all of this opting out does is that it does not allow our children to summon up the courage needed to face disappointment and deprives them of ever learning the secret of success, hard work. We need to come together to teach our children that success is defined by effort and sometimes marked by failure. We need to teach our students to fail well and accept failure as the learning experience that it truly is. Children need to know that they do not have to be perfect all the time, none of us are. Children need to learn the truth about success. Success is borne of hard work, work that is not always pleasant, but work that can define us. I worry that the long-term consequences of opting out of a test or from a team because it is too demanding may produce a generation that has never learned to fail at all. What we really need to teach our children is the truth about what is at the heart of success, hard work, and most all, we need to teach our children to fall forward and fail well.

Dr. Kevin Sheehan, Molloy College