The Importance of Failing

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A few months back I took my 9-year-old daughter golfing. I was excited. She has been taking lessons and playing occasionally for the past few years. Normally she would just play a few holes and stop. This was our first complete round together.

On the first tee she lined her shot up, drew back her club, swung hard, and completely missed the ball.

“Keep your head down,” I offered.

She slowly turned around and gave me THE STARE.

“I know . . .” she replied.

She lined up the shot again and this time hit the ball about 15 feet. Not the shot she imagined. I, not wanting her to get down, said, “Nice shot honey.”

“Mmm . . .” she said.

With each shot over the next two holes I tried to encourage her. Whether the shot was long or short, straight or not, I said things like: “Good try . . . nice one . . . you’re getting it . . . .”

Sometimes I offered advice. I would say, “bend your knees” or “follow through.” Each time I was rewarded with THE STARE.

As we lined up for the third hole, things were a bit tense. She was frustrated, I was trying to be positive-not wanting her to quit.

She lined up her tee shot and hit it about 20 feet.

“All right” I said, in a positive tone. “At least it went forward. That’s something.”

She quickly turned, gave me THE STARE.

Then through gritted teeth she said, “It sucked. That shot sucked. You know it sucked. Jiji [her grandfather who was playing with us as well] knows it sucked. If it sucks, say it sucks!”

We were a bit stunned.

She continued, “If you say every shot is a good try or nice then how do I know what you really think? How will I know when I actually get it right?”

Of course she was right. In my desire for her to succeed I praised her to death. Which ended up having the opposite effect of what I was intending. The praise made her not want to try.

But now that she released her frustration everything changed. The tension was released.

“You’re right,” I said, “I just wanted you to keep trying. If your shots suck, we should acknowledge it and move on.”

After that, when she made a less-than-desirable shot I said, “That was horrible. What do you think happened?”

“I’m not sure,” she said. “I think I bent my knees too much. Let me try it again.”

The funny thing is that, after that, her shots actually improved. On some holes it was pretty dramatic. The best part though, was that when a shot was bad, she no longer cared. She just tried again-something she was unwilling to do at the start of the round. My praise was actually killing her desire. When I stopped the praise and gave real feedback, she improved.

Of course the teacher in me should have seen this coming. I am well aware of the research on praise and its effect on children’s behavior. But my intense desire for my own daughter to be successful overrode this knowledge. It took her outburst to remind me.

This happens to us as teachers all of the time. We want so much for our students to succeed that we forget that part of that success is failing. In a recent blog post on Edutopia, Alina Turgend wrote about the role of mistakes in the classroom. In the middle of her post she cites Carol Dweck’s research on praise and motivation for learning. In her blog she writes:

Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, has conducted groundbreaking research in this area. One of her experiments asked 400 5th graders in New York City schools to take an easy short test, on which almost all performed well. Half the children were praised for “being really smart.” The other half was complimented “having worked really hard.”

Then they were asked to take a second test and given the options of either choosing one that was pretty simple and they would do well on, or one that was more challenging, but they might make mistakes. Of those students praised for effort, 90 percent chose the harder test. Of those praised for being smart, the majority chose the easy test. Dweck has conducted such experiments and studies in a variety of school districts-low-income, high-income, homogenous and mixed-culture and races.

Praise can be important for sure, but how much you do and how it is used has a dramatic impact on our students.

Important lessons for teachers and parents alike!

By the way, you can now follow me on Twitter @PDBrunn. I am also still active on Facebook, so don’t forget to come by and friend me for updates.

(Originally published in 2011.)