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The Successful Student

Posted: 31st May 2014

I was intrigued by the blog by Gretchen Gavett When We Learn From failure . She refers to a recent HBS working paper, by Christopher G. Myers, Bradley R. Staats, and Francesca Gino, who identify what they call an ambiguity of responsibility, which plays a powerful role in determining when you learn from failure and when you don’t.

In my teaching career I have seen many students cope differently with areas where they feel they have failed. This new research reinforces my experience where many will only acknowledge a failure as their own if it cannot be attributed to something, or someone, else.

Students have a choice when things do not go well.

They can take personal ownership for the outcome or they can blame it on external circumstances. If you take personal ownership, their research shows you’re much more likely to learn from and work harder after that mistake. Certainly that is my experience. Students who look back and acknowledge that they just did not work or spend enough time on their studies or ask for help take every opportunity not to repeat the mistake. When I interview students who have felt like this I have every confidence we can help them succeed and that they will take every opportunity open to them.

The researchers put volunteers through several experiments. In one, subjects had to decide whether or not a car should be cleared for an upcoming race, a situation modeled directly after the Challenger explosion. One piece of crucial information, the likelihood of a gasket failure (99.99%), was omitted, but was available via a link. Later, the same group was given a similar test in which they had to identify a potential terrorist, with additional information available via email.

Those who had taken responsibility for their failure to prevent a car crash in the first example, “I just did not take the time to read all the information and jumped to a conclusion based on what was initially presented to me, without reading everything”, were more likely to be successful on the second task. Those who attributed their ultimately disastrous decision to an outside factor, “You can’t expect a person to make a responsible decision on any problem when you leave out one of the major key factors in it”, were less likely to succeed in identifying the fictional terrorist.

In a second round of experiments, subjects were told they’d failed on a blood-smear labeling task (even if they hadn’t), but given two different reasons. Half the group was informed they weren’t engaged enough in the task, while the other half received word that there was a potential problem with the web browser they were using. The researchers found that the latter group often attributed their failure to the possible browser glitch. For example, “Apparently the browser has some difficulty with displaying/labeling these images correctly and that could have hindered my overall performance.” When the entire group did the task again, those who’d been told that they weren’t engaged enough took more time (an indicator of increased effort) and performed better than the browser-glitch group.

As a teacher it means that making sure students understand why errors occur is so important. It is important to develop an environment where students are encouraged to acknowledge and learn from challenging circumstances and from failure.

There is an interesting experiment going on in the States at the moment called teaching children ‘grit’.
They define grit as that ability to persist, never give up and keep going, even when things go wrong. It is that “je ne sais quoi” that drives a student to spend hours playing the piano regularly everyday over a long period of time until they master it.

It requires the teacher to let a student struggle for an answer to a question and resisting the urge to swoop in and offer hints or give them a mark scheme. It is the ability to encourage them to deal with that awkward feeling when they struggle to find and answer and get students to feel comfortable with it so they see it as just a normal part of learning.

It can often be the students who have been told they are gifted and talented and have sailed through school and done well in their GCSE’s who tend to crumble when they face their first challenge, and rather than risk looking like a failure, they just give up.

I see it as part of an educator’s role to enable students to see that, no matter how clever a person is, (I have been fortunate in my teaching career to have taught some of the most talented), eventually they will need to deal with a time when they make a mistake or find it difficult to progress. Indeed it is true that the later this happens in life the more difficult it is for some to learn the emotional resilience to pick themselves up and move on.

I am proud that Brampton College has helped a lot of students do that. It is that ‘can do’ attitude and the belief there are no ceilings to attainment if you are willing to learn from each experience.

John Dewey, an educational reformer and philosopher, argued in 1933 that “failure is not mere failure. It is instructive.” But over 80 years later, we still need to encourage students to go on trying.

This year many schools, including Brampton College, are looking at ways of promoting literacy. However, at the same time we agree with Alvin Toffler:

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.
Alvin Toffler
The ability to learn has a lot to do with dealing with failure, as out of it comes the emotional resilience to work out how to correct what went wrong. It is a skill for life that will enrich the learning process and will give students the life skills that will make them stronger, active participants in their own success. I am please our students and parents feel that Brampton College follows this philosophy.
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