Wednesday, May 31, 2023

On Letting Them Fail

In my recent "Kids Today" post, I mentioned the problems with not letting kids fail classes as one of many examples of how we swoop in to rescue them instead of actually supporting their learning and growth as human beings, arguing that their behaviour is being affected by never having to experience consequences for their actions (or inaction). The adamant refusal of some boards to revisit the idea of just letting kids deal with the consequences of excessive absences or lack of attention in class by getting them to repeat the course is because of a study somewhere that shows a correlation between kids who failed a class and kids who dropped out. BUT, correlation doesn't equal causation! I was a kid who failed a class and dropped out, and in this personal, anecdotal bit of evidence, that failure in grade 10 Latin had zero to do with walking away from high school, which had much more to do with the draw of the outside world, including a boyfriend who worked nights.  

However, I'm sure that it is a factor for some kids. The question is: which kids. 

Martin Seligman did an experiment in the 80s in which he gave two varsity swimming teams an Attributional Style Questionnaire (ASQ*) to see if they lean towards being optimistic or pessimistic. Then he had them be given fake low times during a swimming practice. Low and behold, after swimming with a lower than expected time, the optimists swam faster the next time and the pessimists were slower. This indicates that low test scores can have opposing effects on us depending on our disposition.  

We can look at how he determines optimists and pessimists to figure out one of the factors affecting the likelihood that failing a class can lead to quitting school. Pessimists tend to "explain bad events by causes that are stable in time, global in effect, and internal, but explain good events by causes that are unstable, specific, and external." Optimists do the opposite. Wha...?? Here's an example of a pessimistic attitude: "I failed math because I'm stupid and won't ever be able to do math. I do well in English because the teacher likes me." By contrast, an optimist would say, "I failed math because I didn't work as hard as I needed to. I do well in English because I'm good at it." It's easy to see why people with an optimistic disposition would swim faster after an unexpectedly low time. And I think we've all heard of this internal/external local of control stuff before, but somehow it's not being properly applied to the question of why kids drop out of school. We need to look at differences within that group - the range - instead of just focusing on the median.

We can have some effect on this disposition by giving kids challenges that they can solve in order to help them recognize the role their effort plays in their success. But they have to be real challenges (i.e. things that are actually challenging to them); it has to be something they might fail. The key to teaching, then, is finding this sweet spot for each kid that will challenge them in ways that make them struggle but then they can eventually succeed. It's better to have some adversity that they can overcome than none at all. Most teachers get that, almost intuitively, but it can be asking a lot to truly teach individually instead of giving everyone in the room the same set of questions to answer. BUT, the stopper: kids who are too far on the pessimism scale won't try the very difficult challenges. "What's the point if I'm going to fail anyway?" For some, the pain of failure is much greater than any potential joy from the possibility of success. Seligman thinks this disposition comes from some trauma, and addressing that can be far beyond the scope of a classroom. 

More to the point, for the pessimists, pushing them through when they know they did nothing to deserve the credit reinforces the pessimistic disposition! And for the optimists in the class, failing is beneficial! As a student, every low mark definitely increased my effort next time (even though I typically don't think of myself as optimistic!). In my own classroom I've seen some capable kids who seem to have lost all motivation because so much is just handed to them. It seems foolish to do the work when you can get the credit without doing anything. We're negatively affecting the optimists in the group who don't actually get a sense of self-efficacy when the content is too easy. 

Back before we pushed them all through, I had a grade 12 student in my grade 10 civics class. It was his third time taking the course. When the other kids whined about a project, he told them all, 

"Just do the work and get it done even if it's not fun for you. Not everything will be fun. And getting it done now is way better than having to do this course again two years from now, like I have to. It's not actually hard or that much work; just get it done."

What a difference that little speech made on the rest of the class! Here's an example of a student who learned some valuable skills because he was allowed to fail. He saw first hand the effect of his behaviour on the outcomes.

I know some teachers might wince at the suggestion that we encourage kids to do work they don't enjoy because we're being trained to believe that it indicates a "factory-school" model of teaching. We're to meet kids where they're at, connect personally to find their interests, then design our content to foster their enjoyment. It sounds amazing, and I'm all for it, but I have no idea how to do that for 90 students each day. Offering a variety of ways to demonstrate learning is the best I've got. And that civics student is also right: Not everything will be fun. Lots of these kids will end up in factories. I'd love to spark a love of learning and discovery in each and every one of them, and I believe I've done a pretty admirable job on that front over the years just with storytelling that gets the vast majority engaged, but some kids just hate everything about my courses. They still need to show that they understand the content, though, and on their own steam. I give them a variety of ways to do that -- I'm not a monster -- but they should actually have to demonstrate competence without the teacher jumping through hoops to get them there. If they don't, then teachers shouldn't expect the third degree if students let themselves fail.


* FYI - The Attributional Style Questionnaire, short version, presents 12 hypothetical scenarios and people have to answer the question, If it happened to you, what would you think is the main cause of it?  (The long version has 60 scenarios.) Then they answer a few questions about the cause and the situation. Half the scenarios are good events and half are bad, and half are interpersonal, and half achievement-related. You can think about how you're react to these:

Good/Interpersonal: complimented by a friend; praised on a project; partner treats your lovingly
Good/Achievement: become rich; get a great job; get a raise
Bad/Interpersonal: ignore a friend with a problem; friend is hostile to you; date goes badly
Bad/Achievement: can't find a job; bad reaction to a speech; can't get expected work finished

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