Monday, February 24, 2014

While watching freestyle skiing in the winter Olympics, I began wondering how the amazing athletes got their start. I imagine my daughters, Anna Mae (8) and Lizzie (6), standing in skies at the top of a steep mountain looking down at a ramp in front of them shivering with intimidation of making the jump for the first time. The silence of the mountain top is interrupted with my tough-love voice saying, “OK, girls, here’s what you gotta do. Just lean forward and let the hill and ramp do its thing. When you are naturally propelled in the air, do about three back flips, followed by four or five twists and just be sure you land on your feat... You got this.” And with that and a strong slap on the back, Anna Mae and Lizzie accelerate down the hill to the ramp, fly high into the air, complete the stunts and stick the landing - proving instantly they too are Olympic-contender material.

The formula seems simple really: A little guts + A strong slap on the back = Gold medal.

In a reality, I know that the incredible skills and courage of the skiers and all Olympians are built instead by hours and hours of practice, lots of failures, and incremental success. They aren’t reckless maniacs or freaks of nature with unnatural ability and nerves of steel. They are dedicated and driven competitors that push themselves to be the best. They weren’t born destined to be Olympic skiers. They have become the world’s best not because they haven’t fallen. They are the best because they recognize falling and failing is a part of learning.

The secret formula is really no secret at all: Practice, lots of failure, and incremental success. (Rinse and repeat.)

In Mindset, Carol Dweck makes the powerful case of embracing and teaching a growth mindset, the notion that abilities are continuously developed through dedication and hard work, rather than adopting and reinforcing a fixed mindset, the notion that intelligence or talent are fixed traits. This TEDxTalk shares some surprising results of how a growth mindset impacts student achievement. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell dispels the idea that the best athletes, musicians, and industry leaders are destined to be great because of unmatched intelligence or even ambition. He cites case studies such as The Beatles and Bill Gates to make the point that success comes often from life’s circumstances, matched with lots of practice (10,000 hours according to his studies). Recognizing the importance of learning from failure, Penn State now even offers a freshman seminar course at Penn State called “Failure 101.”

I’m a math enthusiast and technology enthusiast. When helping others in both of these areas, I’m always struck by how people often quickly label themselves as good or bad with technology or good or bad in math. In reality, the label is never quite accurate. Becoming good at math and technology - and probably just about anything in life - isn’t just some event that occurs on a mysterious day or an attribute that is selectively bestowed on some people. The person confident in math likely excels because he or she has found a way to chip away at the difficult problem even when stuck. A person becomes skilled with technology because he or she chases curiosities and finds a path that works by first exploring what doesn’t work. A roadblock doesn’t become a dead end; it simply becomes a moment of redirection - of seeking and finding a new path to take. I feel fortunate that my daughters’ teachers continue to see failure as temporary. One of the teachers encapsulated this idea perhaps best by telling students to put a smiley face next to every problem they missed because it’s an opportunity to learn something new.

At home, I also try to be very deliberate about recognizing and rewarding effort and embracing mistakes with my girls - reframing shortfalls as opportunities. And yet, at the very same time, I often find myself frequently voicing the fixed mindset or avoiding failure in my own actions. I denounce hair bands and all forms of hair braiding - claiming that I just don’t have what it takes to braid my girls’ hair (or tie a decent hair band for that matter). I declare myself a “bad cook” - without admitting that I’ve only tried making brownies once in my life (which was yesterday). For my job, I recently took the necessary exams in order to become a Certified Educational Technology Leader. There was really only one thing that made me very reluctant to take the test. It wasn’t the cost, the suggested reading materials, the testing center, the material itself, or the fact that I already had a technology leadership job. My apprehension was built simply on the fact I was scared that I would fail.

Let’s face it. Practice is often tedious and frustrating. And, failure is often disheartening and embarrassing. As educators and parents, I think we must not only share that failure is OK, we must embrace it and embed it within our policies, programs, and practices. We must reinforce that aiming and missing is for better than not aiming at all. The point isn’t about false praises or artificial rewards. I don’t want every kid on the soccer field to get a trophy for trying. Instead, I want every kid to know that getting better is the reward for trying and that losing is most often the best teacher of how to win. Finally, we must accept that our actions generally speak louder than our words. We don’t just teach students during our great lessons and model good leadership in teacher inservices that go exactly as planned. When lessons and inservices don’t go well, we have the opportunity to acknowledge, embrace, and teach that we are all constantly learning, growing…. and, yes, failing.

So, what impresses me most about an Olympic freestyle skier, is not their mid-air flight off the peak of a ramp; it’s knowing they repeatedly pull their face out of the snow from the bottom of the hill to get ready for the next run.
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  1. Great read Brad! I love the focus on teachers who "continue to see failure as temporary." It reminds me of one of Schlechty's design principles that talked about protecting students from the "adverse consequences of initial failure." Schoolwork that allows students only one run down the slope certainly doesn't build the kind of persistence that it takes to be successful!


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