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Friday, February 17, 2012

Failure, college applications and resilency

I can only imagine how difficult it must be for college admission officers to read hundreds of applications. One of the new trends shared by a panel of these readers is to predict if a student will be a success. One way to do this is for a student to share how he rebounded after a failure or setback. Does he acknowledge his shortcoming and show evidence of accepting it and moving forward? This is what the admissions folks look for. They see pages and pages of student accomplishments-as they should, but life is a journey filled with challenges and setbacks. Students with a growth mindset (Dweck) and fortuitous attitude will be more likely to handle challenges and ultimately succeed.

When I work with my students on various projects, lessons or assignments, it never fails that they are so afraid of failing that they quit before they begin. This fear of "I will look stupid if I do it wrong" cripples children and adults. I admit it. I recall many times sitting in an undergraduate class completely clueless as to what the professor was explaining. Rather than raise my hand and ask for clarification, I would sit quietly and ask a classmate after class. This fear inhibits creativity, learning and confidence. I was relieved when another classmate chimed in for clarification-and by the looks of many others, they were too.

Each day and each lesson I verbalize the mantra that smart people ask questions, successful people do not fear failure. Early in the school year I introduce a simple but difficult pre algebra puzzle/problem to my gifted elementary students. The math is simple, adding and subtracting less than 100. The concept is challenging. Students must decipher shapes and assign weights based on certain rules. The puzzle is a mobile, like the one that hand from a ceiling. It has two sides, both are equal in weight. But, one side may have two shapes and the other three or more. So it requires some trial and error, calculation, planning and critical thinking. More often than not students want to quit. Their comments range from "this is stupid" to "I don't get it". Any parent or teacher knows that "I don't get it" means "do it for me".

Two critical lessons are attached to the algebra. The first is that wrong answers are ok. It will eventually lead to the correct one. The second and most important is students learn "What to do, when I don't know what to do". In other words, problem solve. Identify a problem, make a plan, test it, and revise as needed. Once the learners realize and internalize these lessons, they have the tools to take risks. They are so used to being able to cruise through a lesson or the curriculum that when finally tasked with a difficult situation, they are so afraid to look "dumb" that they won't even attempt something difficult. A lifetime of living in fear like that will lead to a waste of talent.

So encourage children (and adults) to try, work hard and be resilient. Praise their effort not their achievement. Teach them how to learn from failures and move forward. I love the Michael Jordan Nike commercial that played a few years back. It was a narrative by MJ explaining how many game-winning shots he missed, how many games he lost, all of his set backs...his closing line was "I failed over and over and over again in my life....and that is why I succeed!

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