Learning from Failure

Earlier this week I had the privilege of attending our parent coffee hosted by Dr. Webster. A small, but interested, group of parents formed a circle and shared conversation about how the year is progressing in lower school. Many pleasantries were exchanged and positive observations were communicated. The topic of what are the most important skills to be taught in a school came up and, not surprisingly, specific content skills were put aside in favor of more character building skills. These skills included the notion of cooperation, empathy, stamina, grit, and resilience. We discussed the need for a “safe” classroom environment where boys were allowed to try, try again, make mistakes, even fail in their attempts, and yet still feel a sense of accomplishment.

Much has been written of late about the need for schools to teach grit and resilience. Too often, educators are finding that students give up too easily. The “process” is lost in pursuit of the “product”. Parents, and students themselves, measure success by the grade, the win, the trophy. Making a mistake is not always rewarded as part of the process of learning. Carol Dweck, in her book Mindset, talks at length about the danger of praising success as a result of intellect over effort. She points to the danger of students forgoing taking risks if it means failing.

Other authors have begun focusing on the need to encourage risk taking and subsequent failure as necessary to learning. For a number of years, I have enjoyed the articles of Jessica Lahey, a writer for the New York Times and Atlantic Magazine on parenting and education. This summer she published a new book, The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed. I am enjoying the book and encourage others to pick up a copy. In her introduction, she says, “the setbacks, mistakes, miscalculations, and failures we have shoved out our children’s way are the very experiences that teach them how to be resourceful, persistent, innovative and resilient citizens of this world.” She says that there is a term for this overprotection called “enmeshment.” Parent egos and concerns get in the way of their children’s necessary trial and error method of navigating the world. Lahey also states that, “what research has shown over and over again: children whose parents don’t allow them to fail are less engaged, less enthusiastic about their education, less motivated, and ultimately less successful than children whose parents support their autonomy.” I will continue to give more communication about the book in future blogs.

Why use these ideas in my blog this week? Teachers are in the process of writing report cards. This process happens not over a course of days, but over a course of weeks. Teachers carefully construct narratives that tell the story of each boy’s progress. These stories, along with the marks of effort and conduct, constitute the basis of discussion at upcoming parent/teacher conferences. A successful grade for effort and conduct will tell more about the learning journey than a grade for a specific skill. Asking about what your child has learned from a failure might be a good topic of conversation during these meetings.

Here are a few article links that may prove helpful as you prepare for the discussion about school progress with your son over the next few weeks.



I hope that my communication with you each week encourages “talking points” to inspire weekend conversation with your son or sons. Here are some “talking points” for this weekend.

  • How did you enjoy having two harps play at your Morning Meeting this week? What two events did Dr. Webster discuss on the 11th day of November? What holiday did Dr. Webster and other students share information about at the assembly?
  • If you are in Kindergarten- Did you enjoy your PE day of free centers? Which did you enjoy the most- bicycles, basketball toss, balance boards, or cup toss?
  • If you are in Pre-First- Did you enjoy singing in unison with Kindergarten in preparation for the holiday concert? What have you learned about India- thanks to the recent travels of Ms. Matthews and the visit of Taran’s mom?
  • If you are in First Grade- What are you learning about the famous Native American Squanto? Why do we remember him? What do we mean by a “verb”?
  • If you are in Second Grade- What song are you practicing to sing at the Thanksgiving assembly?
  • If you are in Third Grade- What about this first trimester are you most proud of and willing to share with Mrs. Teeling and Ms. Jordan during folder check? What are you writing about in your personal narrative? Are you using the opportunity to edit and revise?
  • If you are in Fourth Grade- What are you learning about animal adaptations in science? What did you include in your iMovie? What songs are you rehearsing with Mr. Holt in preparation for the Thanksgiving assembly?
  • If you are in Fifth Grade- Are you ready for your play? What are some of the creative costumes your classmates have brought to school?

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