Failure and Education

Today I read a list of “25 of the Most Important Things a Dad Can Teach His Kids“.  I don’t agree with them all, but number one was in my opinion the most important thing you can teach.

Winning is fun, but it teaches you nothing. Failure is the best teacher in the world. Winning is a trophy, failing is an education.”

Failing is the best way to learn.  If you’ve always succeeded at everything what happens when you come up against something too big for you?  From this standpoint it’s a very good thing to have older brothers.  They teach you very quickly what it is to lose. Growing up means learning to deal with failure.  There is no one in the world that has never failed.  But if you fail at things early in life you learn how to deal with failure.

Every day I work with students.  They come from a wide variety of backgrounds, but primarily I work with students who have experience with what our society thinks of as failure.  Maybe they didn’t finish High School, or even start. Maybe they’re coming up on two years clean.  Maybe they’re raising their child by themselves while trying to get an education.  But although we might wish that everyone can come from a history of success (personally, emotionally, educationally) I’ve also found something interesting.  When I talk with my colleagues at other schools they invariably complain about students who aren’t ready for university.  They expect it to be easy.  They can’t see what’s wrong with skipping a couple classes and why they can’t make up for it later.  Their parents come to bail them out of something. They don’t know the difference between equal and fair, or in some cases what they actually are.  I don’t run into a lot of that.  Oh of course there’s a little bit (except for the parents thing, that has happened once in three years), but nowhere to the extent that my colleagues seem to deal with.  I suspect that it comes down to failure.  My students know what failure is, have had to work around it, and are working to succeed despite past failure.  But the students my colleagues complain about don’t have much experience with failure.  They have students who’ve been guided through their lives and educations and expect that it will continue forever, because that’s what life is to them.

I am not jumping on the “this generation has it so much better” bandwagon, or the “they’re so entitled” bandwagon, because every generation can say that about the previous generation, and they’re always wrong, and right, and kinda wrong, and kinda right.  It’s all a matter of perspective and, too often, of narrowing your focus so much that you ignore what’s happening in the rest of the generation.  But in every generation there’s an advantage to the ability to deal with failure.

Our society has gotten very good at remembering that success is important for teaching.  I think we need to remember that it’s only one side of the coin.  Without failure we’re just setting people up for tragedy in the future.  That isn’t to say that we should let students fail at everything, or fall hard when they fail.  No, as teachers and educators we need to guide failure just as we guide success.  We need to make sure that students are able to function when things get hard, but also able to take advantage of the straight stretches.

So far I’ve been talking about failure while young.  And I strongly believe that it’s important.  Without it you don’t learn to deal with adversity.  But that’s not to say that you shouldn’t learn how to work with failure at an older age too.

I’m a firm believer that everyone should have at least two hobbies.  One hobby that you are good at, that you excel at, and another hobby that you struggle at.  A hobby you struggle with teaches you limits.  That there’s always someone better than you.  It teaches you to persevere, and by doing that to incrementally improve.  A hobby you excel at on the other hand shows you that sometimes you’re the bigger fish, that just as you will always be beaten by someone, you will also always be beating someone else. It can also provide encouragement for the hobby you struggle with.

If all life is struggle then you will slowly be bogged down and beaten back.  But if all life is easy then you never need to push your boundaries and you stunt your growth.  It’s only by excelling at something and struggling at other things that you grow from both ends – success and failure.

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