Lots of failure, little effort to learn from it

John Thompson writes about “no excuses” schools after reading Paul Tough’s New article, What if the Secret to Success is Failure? Tough describes how KIPP co-founder David Levin tries to teach “perseverance and empathy” as well as academic skills.

In inner city schools, there is plenty of failure but rarely is there an effort to cultivate grittiness, resilience, and skills for rebounding from failure.

High-challenge schools have imitated the easiest of Levin’s methods by putting up signs saying “Whatever It Takes!” and “Failure is NOT an Option!” Thompson writes. They forget Levin’s concerns about the “socio-emotional aspects of learning.”

Here’s the model:

First, principals and teachers who supported Levin’s vision would start by calling a faculty meeting and proclaiming an unflinching focus on instruction, as well as a system for providing remediation. . . .  a system of rewards and punishments for students and teachers, along with additional paperwork would be announced.

. . .  at first, these initiatives always worked pretty well, and often they were spectacular successes. After a few weeks, however, the issue for teachers would become the minority of students who failed to comply.

By October, teachers push loudly for consequences. Faculty meetings degenerate into shouting matches. Eventually, complaints about students’ behavior are labeled “excuses.”  If the principal tries to send the worst discipline problems to alternative schools, they’re sent back quickly.

Thompson wonders what could have happened if the system had tried to teach perseverance and empathy.

What if the failure to meet classroom behavioral standards had not been dismissed as the teachers’ failures with classroom management? Think of the difference it would have made if educators in neighborhood schools had the ability to draw a line and enforce standards. Then, the failure of a student to control his or her behavior could have become “a teachable moment.” We could have helped students develop the resilience required to be a good citizen in class.

“Had we been just as serious about teaching students to be students as we were about teaching subject matter, could we have avoided our reform wars?” Thompson asks.

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