I say this all the time: Before you can do anything well, you have to do it poorly a whole bunch of times. How many times you have to get it wrong varies, of course. There are many factors: related experience, environment, support, interest, and other resources. When learning a new skill, whatever it is, we don't generally get it right the first time, even under ideal conditions. We don't often get it down on the second attempt, either. "Failure" is an essential part of learning.
Unfortunately, the word "failure" is almost always used as a negative term. Failure is to be avoided at all costs in most educational environments. Failure is for losers and dumb people, hence the term, failures. It feels like a permanent label.
As a result we create learning environments where students are afraid to try new ways of thinking or doing. Risk is not an option. The goal is success. Skip the failure and go straight to the A, that's what schools demand from students. The way for students to achieve this is to regurgitate back exactly what they've been told, to check only the right boxes. Don't think too much about it, just give the Right Answer.
Quoting from Jonah Lehrer's 2011 piece in Wired Science, "Why Do Some People Learn Faster?,"
"The physicist Niels Bohr once defined an expert as 'a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field.' Bohr’s quip summarizes one of the essential lessons of learning, which is that people learn how to get it right by getting it wrong again and again. Education isn’t magic. Education is the wisdom wrung from failure."
If this is true, and I believe it is, it seems that our educational system has some major flaws. High-stakes testing and grades in general rate students' success based on how frequently they get the right answer. We tend to have very little tolerance for the wrong answer.
When students do get the right answer, we tell them that they are "smart." Smart kids get good grades. Seems obvious. However, this is actually further exacerbating the problem. First, we discourage mistakes and value only correct answers, creating a multitude of risk-averse, failure-averse, stunted learners. Then, when they are successful in their effort to give only correct answers, we reward them with praise, further encouraging them to stay, and think, between the lines.
Carol Dweck is a professor in the Psychology Department of Stanford University. In an article from Educational Leadership, "The Perils and Promise of Praise," she writes,
"Many educators have hoped to maximize students' confidence in their abilities, their enjoyment of learning, and their ability to thrive in school by praising their intelligence. We've studied the effects of this kind of praise in children as young as 4 years old and as old as adolescence, in students in inner-city and rural settings, and in students of different ethnicities—and we've consistently found the same thing (Cimpian, Arce, Markman, & Dweck, 2007; Kamins & Dweck, 1999; Mueller & Dweck, 1998): Praising students' intelligence gives them a short burst of pride, followed by a long string of negative consequences."
In short, Dweck found that praising a student's intelligence encourages them to 1. believe that their success is an inborn trait rather than one that has been worked for, and 2. be resistant to risk for fear of failure.
In actuality, it is effort that leads to learning and intellectual growth, not inborn gifts. Effort leads to success. Getting it wrong 1000 times is the only way to get it right on 1001. We learn from our mistakes. We learn by getting it wrong until we get it right. But when getting it wrong is a disaster, when getting it wrong means a bad grade on your 'permanant record,' then students do their best to play it safe and only get it right. That means less innovation, less creativity, less critical thinking, less learning. When getting it wrong means that you are not smart or that you are a failure, real learning is severely inhibited.
Grades are detrimental to learning. So at North Star, we don't use them. This is not just our idea. Big thinkers in education and psychology agree with us, and have done many, many experiments to show that this is the case. As reference, please see the works of Carol Dweck, Alfie Kohn, Daniel Pink, and others.
Our educational system has been slow to catch on. Every public teacher and school is also graded and judged, and so fears failure, too. Living under the threat of failure is not an ideal learning environment for students, and it is not an innovative or supportive environment for teaching, either.
These are big issues without simple solutions. As usual, I am extremely grateful to work in an environment that is not stunted by such challenges, and to have both the liberty and security of working with students who need not fear their mistakes as they learn. At North Star the focus is on effort, experimentation, and meaningful learning, all of which are both unquantifiable and priceless.
What a beautiful pile of compost! Thank you so much, Cook's Farm, for bringing us your awesome composted cow manure to get us started with our garden! We'll be digging our new beds tomorrow and mixing it in.
We were so excited and inspired by the donation, Willow and I ran right over to the ice cream shop, Flayvor's of Cook's Farm, and enjoyed some delicious, local, homemade ice cream.
Following are some photos from Olde Beauty: An Independent Learners Exhibition, which opened at the Smith College Campus Center on Friday, April 6. The entire process was a great experience for the ten teens who participated. Beautiful work. Thanks for making it happen, Rebecca!