Thursday, August 13, 2015

Success Is Meaningless

Last night, as some of us chatted in the aftermath of our all school board meeting, the mother of a school-aged boy brought up parent-teacher conferences. "The teachers always want to talk about academics. I assume the academics are fine. What I want to know about is how he is doing socially."

That's how Woodland Park parents are and it echoes my own experience. When I sat down for those parent-teacher conferences, my first and only questions were: "How does she treat her friends?" and "How do her friends treat her?" It often threw the teachers a bit who had prepared detailed subject-by-subject reports, complete with examples of the work she had been doing, because that's what parents usually expect, I guess: more information piled atop those test scores and grades. I often lay the blame at the feet of the corporate education reformers for what is happening in our public schools, and that's where most of it lies, but there are always a few teachers among my readership who point out that much of the pressure they feel comes from parents who do not, under any circumstances, want junior to fail.

Failure, not success, stands at the heart of a good education. All those straight-A's and top scores are not only meaningless, but even detrimental to learning how to think, how to struggle, how to figure things out for oneself. And worst of all, I think, is how this unhealthy focus on all success all the time, is destroying our children's joy of learning.

The truth -- for this parent and so many others -- is this: Her child has sacrificed her natural curiosity and love of learning at the alter of achievement, and it's our fault.

At Woodland Park, we're all about failure. At any given moment, when you look around our classroom or playground, you see almost all of the children in the midst of failure, starting over, trying again.

Marianna is a very smart and high-achieving, and her mother reminds her of that on a daily basis. However, Marianna does not get praised for the diligence and effort she puts into sticking with a hard math problem or a convoluted scientific inquiry. If that answer at the end of the page is wrong, or if she arrives at a dead end in her research, she has failed -- no matter what she has learned from her struggle. And contrary to what she may believe, in these more difficult situations she is learning. She learns to be creative in her problem-solving. She learns diligence. She learns self-control and perseverance. But because she is scared to death of failing, she has started to take fewer intellectual risks. She has trouble writing rough drafts and she doesn't like to hypothesize or think out loud in class. She knows that if she tries something challenging or new, and fails, that failure will be hard evidence that she's not as smart as everyone keeps telling her she is. Better to be safe. Is that what we want? Kids who get straight As but hate learning? Kids who achieve academically, but are too afraid to take leaps into the unknown?

This is why we strive at Woodland Park to avoid praise altogether, and especially the empty praise of "Good job!" or "Way to go!" that has become epidemic in our country. We instead focus on the important part, the failure, the struggle, the process, and if we adults must say something it's more along the lines of, "You worked hard at that."  That is where the learning takes place. Without the work, without the failure, success is meaningless.

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