Kohn: Failure’s not all that educational

Do kids really learn from failure?  Alfie Kohn, writing on The Answer Sheet, has his doubts.

Kohn, who’s argued that self-discipline is overrated, is reacting to belief that “what kids need to succeed is old-fashioned grit and perseverance, self-discipline and will power.” Children experience plenty of frustration and failure, he writes, and there’s no reason to think it leads to learning.

In fact, studies find that when kids fail, they tend to construct an image of themselves as incompetent and even helpless, which leads to more failure.  (They also come to prefer easier tasks and lose interest in whatever they’re doing.)  In one study, students were asked to solve problems that were rigged to ensure failure.  Then they were asked to solve problems that were clearly within their capabilities.  What happened?  Even the latter problems paralyzed them because a spiral of failure had been set into motion.

“Challenge — which carries with it a risk of failure — is a part of learning,” Kohn concedes. But quitters may be rejecting challenges that “aren’t particularly engaging or relevant.”

Or it may be that schools have focused students on grades, test scores and being the best rather than learning, Kohn writes.

If the goal is to get an A, then it’s rational to pick the easiest possible task.  Giving up altogether just takes this response to its logical conclusion.  “I’m no good at this, so why bother?” is not an unreasonable response when school is primarily about establishing how good you are.

We want students to “experience success and failure not as reward and punishment but as information,”  said Jerome Bruner, Kohn quotes.

That’s a marvelous way to think about reframing unsuccessful experiences:  My experiment, or my essay, didn’t turn out the way I had hoped, and the reason that happened offers valuable clues for how I might take a different approach tomorrow.

But schools aren’t structured that way, Kohn writes. Students see grades and test sores as rewards and punishments because that’s what they are.

How can schools teach students to learn from failure?

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  1. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Children don’t need failure. I don’t think many people think they do, and I suspect that much of the failure-oriented rhetoric is being accidentally and/or willfully misinterpreted.

    What children need is the possibility of failure, not the experience. (A few experiences of failure may be inevitable if the kids are being raised well, but the point isn’t to have the failures; the point should always be the successes.)

    What I mean is this: if everything children do is safe and scripted, if they are coddled in the way that some commentators criticize, then when they succeed there’s no sense of accomplishment.

    Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

    Walking along a curb is just walking along the curb. Walking along a balance beam is something else, because you can fall. Walking along a similar ledge on the edge of a skyscraper is (stupid and) quite a feat, and will give you memories and shape you as a person.

    Likewise, a teacher may say “good job” to a student about a paper. But passing a class where there is no possibility of failure is tantamount to just sitting in a room: there’s no challenge, no accomplishment. And the teacher’s words may well be sincere, but they ring hollow because the student knows (or will soon enough figure out) that what has been accomplished is of little import.

    But getting approval from someone who is willing to tell you that you have failed, who is unafraid to say that your paper or exam was fairly awful and explain in detail why this is so… that is something else. And it sticks with you. You learn to repeat and refine your accomplishment, and it matters. It gives you confidence.

    Failure can hurt, or cripple. That’s not denied by reasonable people.

    But the impossibility of failure does hurt or cripple.

    That shouldn’t be denied, either.

  2. By making success appropriate and immediate?

    Right now the reward is good grades which, pardon me for pointing out the obvious, results in a big whoopy-frickin-do from most kids absent mom and dad’s energetic demonstrations. Maybe *all* kids absent mom and dad’s energetic demonstrations.

    After all, grades don’t taste good, they don’t make the other kids sigh with envy, they’re not entertaining and they won’t lick your face while they frantically wag their tail.

    Kids also tend to have a relatively short time horizons.

    When you have to wait for a doubling of the age of the universe, as measured from roughly when a child might become self-aware, to get some reward the value of which, unless reinforced by trusted adults, is dubious delaying gratification is a fool’s errand.

    Kohn, like the proverbial blind squirrel, manages to find one nut in the observation that schools are structured to present test results as reward and punishment, for the kids. Kohn however does tread on thin ice by bringing up the subject of testing.

    The score a kid gets on a test is a sum of not just the kid’s abilities and environment but also of the efficacy of the institution that’s responsible for teaching.

  3. I believe students can learn from failure. However, I appreciate Kohn’s article because he highlights the limitations (focus on grades being the main one) of the present education system that will nullify any possible lessons that could be learnt from failure. I also appreciate his point that students should not be given rigged questions so that they will fail – I fully agree with him on that. This was a great, though-provoking piece of writing.

  4. Mark Roulo says:

    Alfie always seems to stake out an … interesting … position.

    From his article:

    Not long ago, a Canadian teacher became a conservative folk hero for defying his district’s no-zero policy. He insisted on his prerogative to punish students by giving them the lowest possible grade.

    Alfie is adding his own spin to the facts.

    A bit of Googling shows that the teacher was “giving students zeros for work that wasn’t handed in or tests not taken.” Whether this is a punishment or something else is pretty subjective. If I don’t try to climb a mountain and my “height achieved” is scored as a zero am I being punished?

    I’m actually fine with passing kids through school (and graduating them with diplomas) who don’t do any of the work *IF* the majority of Americans are also okay with this. But I’m pretty sure that doing so across the board won’t improve the reputation of American K-12 public schools. And I can’t figure out what argument Alfie expects to win by suggesting that something like this would be a good thing.


    • J.D. Salinger says:

      I’m actually fine with passing kids through school (and graduating them with diplomas) who don’t do any of the work *IF* the majority of Americans are also okay with this.

      Are you OK with anything that the majority of Americans are also OK with?

      • Mark Roulo says:

        No, not that general 🙂

        But if there is a majority that says that a given level of progress/achievement is meaningless at public K-12 schools, I’m fine with that.

        I don’t think it is *GOOD* … but I won’t argue.

      • J.D. has a good point. I think that there should be three diplomas you can get in high school: a ‘Certificate of Completion’ (for the ones who were there more to be babysat than to learn anything), an ‘Academic Diploma’, and an ‘Academic Diploma with Honors’.

  5. Roger Sweeny says:

    Kids are not in school because they have a burning desire to learn physics or French or American history. They are there because 1) they are legally obligated to be there, 2) all the other kids are there, and 3) they have been told over and over that if they don’t pass or (even better) get good grades, they will never get a good job.

    Under those circumstances, I would not expect many of them to be “interested in learning” what the school wants them to learn.

    Under those circumstances, is it realistic to think that teachers can make these young people become “interested in learning”?

    As long as educational credentials are tickets in a job lottery, I’m pretty sure students will treat school (largely) as a hoop to be jumped through. I doubt there is any way to change that.

    As teachers, we have been happy to say, “If you do not pay attention, behave, and pass my class, you will diminish your chances for success in life.” It helps us win the battle–they do behave better, pay better attention, and get better grades–but we lose the war. Most of them have not become “interested in learning” what we want them to learn. Quite the opposite.

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      Well, it speaks to that conflict between what we expect and need from citizens and the individualism that’s at the center of our culture. We need adults who are literate, numerate, with some basic knowledge of the world. The former is why we cajole, coerce, bribe, and threaten children until they acquire these skills. We do this because we know they’ll need them. We know what’s best for them. On the other hand, we also know nothing provides a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment like self-motivation. The great minds do the things they do because they want to, not because someone made them.

      So, teachers (and our cultural generally) seem to be obsessed with cultivating that self-motivation for goals set not by the kid but why the culture. But, kids are very much aware of the inadequacies of what we’ve defined as “need to know”. They don’t really have a great deal of trusts in the system to really guide them to the knowledge that’s useful and necessary to their lives. They’re distrustful because the system (for lack of a better term) lies to them and it lies the most egregiously to the poor and disadvantaged. There is very little integrity left in public education is our country. There are many folks with good intentions, but we know where good intentions lead.

      Graduating barely literate or numerate kids is a lie. Telling kids they’re “college ready” when they’re not is another. Telling them that most of them should go to college is another. When we’re lying, we’re not giving them what they really need. It’s a grotesque lost opportunity.

      We lie because we’re not able to be honest as a country about race and about how degrading cultures diminish us. If we did that then we’d be Nazis and we don’t want to be Nazis.

  6. nailsagainsttheboard says:

    The key word for everything is “moderation”. People–including children–can and do learn from mistakes, but if all one experiences is perpetual failure, that person will inevitably shut down, give up, harbor negative feelings and be less likely to take future risks or challenges. Failure is beneficial every once in a while, but it must be balanced by success, or the real probability of success. As a teacher, I’m all for raising the bar with challenging, quality curricula and instruction,but students have to be able to, at the very least, touch the bar. This is not a Golden Age of teaching; the current testing mania is more like the Dark Ages. I have no problem with standardized testing at the end of the school year, but it should be only one of MANY types of assessment, all year long. States and their school districts that continually pile on more and more standards per grade level, in the guise of “rigor”, require elementary students, most of whom are still at a very concrete stage of thought, to master very difficult abstract concepts and skills, when what the vast majority of elementary students need are solid, foundational skills, lots of repetition over time so that they internalize these basics, and can then have a foundation with which to progress to more abstract work in middle and high school. Obviously, cognitively “gifted” students can do more abstract, difficult work and should receive differentiated instruction. But we are setting up most students for failure. Piaget’s proven and timeless theories of learning–and common sense–should prevail, but alas, we are not in the Age of Wisdom anymore– we are in the Age of Stupidity and Political Correctness/Callowness. When will the majority of our nation’s students stop being used as guinea pigs for the Next Great “Reform”? No wonder many more students dislike school, particularly the drill and kill pressure cooker that has become a monster. I became a teacher to TEACH and hopefully be remembered by my students for what they LEARNED, much of which is in the depth of knowledge, wisdom and insight for which I was a catalyst; if I wanted to work at a test prep center, I would have joined Kaplan, Princeton Review or Kumon. At least they represent themselves more honestly than the educational, political and bureaucratic “pundits” who pretend they know anything about education. Whether called “No Child Left Behind” (most are) or “Race To The Top” (bottom) these misguided and inane policies are dismantling the teaching profession and hurting the very students they purport to help. I don’t excuse the teacherr unions either–wages, hours, and working conditions are what unions are all about and should not pretend to be about anything else.