By Felicity LuHill
April 25, 2017
This week, in Edutopia, there was an article titled “Redefining Failure,” which says that educators should encourage students to try new things and fail so that students can grow and learn from their mistakes. It uses the example of bowling, a first-time bowler will learn quickly on their own how to avoid gutterballs, from making a few gutterballs at the start. The article then expands on this saying that by giving students “impossible” problems, they can learn quickly from their mistakes as well, and have a deeper understanding of the problem. The article says that though our culture of standardized testing doesn’t give much room for this method of teaching, it has proven to be successful in other countries. Overall, the piece focuses on the classroom and the educator, but it made me think of my home life growing up.
The pressure I experienced to succeed academically came from my parents, far more than from my educators. And I’m sure I am not alone when I say that if a teacher gave me impossible problems that I failed at, my parents would not be happy with my bringing that test home for them to sign.
Starting in fourth grade my mother brought me Chinese math books for me to do after I was done with my actual homework. The book was full of algebra, a subject she claimed was taught to fourth graders in China. When I didn’t know how to do it, she would get frustrated with me, show me how to “solve for x” without explanation and ask me to mimic her methods.
My father’s mentality wasn’t far from hers. Throughout my childhood and to this day, if I ask him about a term he’s used that I don’t know, he’ll frown and raise his voice slightly, “You don’t know what ___ is?” baffled by my ignorance. Like once when he mentioned the distance between the earth and the moon: “You don’t know how many miles there are between the earth and the moon?” In retrospect, I would like to point out that his generation grew up with the space race, Neil Armstrong and the rest, so it’s not surprising he would know this pretty useless piece of information. I guessed 30 thousand, to which he shook his and said “Not even close.” (It’s closer to 300 thousand.)
Needless to say, their methods made failure intimidating. Back then, I didn’t see failure as an option, let alone a way to grow. And I don’t think that someone outside of my home could have made me see it any differently.
I think that incorporating failure into early education is a two-step process. First, the child has to know that you will help and support them when they fail, especially at home but also in school. It’s a crucial first step before failure can be used a tool for education as the Edutopia article suggests.
Looking back now, I know how lucky I was to grow up with parents who did help me when I eventually fell behind. My parents expected a lot from me, but they also believed in my abilities. The pressure that they put on me came from a place of love and support. They didn’t “encourage” me to fail, but, when I inevitably did fail, they encouraged me to pick myself up, and learn from my mistakes.
Nowadays, when my dad asks me the shameful question of “how could I not know?” I always reply, “Don’t judge the person that doesn’t know, judge the person that doesn’t want to know.” To which, he nods solemnly, perhaps understanding that I have a lot more to learn from my day-to-day failures.