As a writing tutor and tennis instructor for kids of all ages, it's safe to say every parent, tutor, and/or teacher has heard the same phrase I’ve heard over and over: “I can’t do it.” Getting my students to believe in the process of learning, especially when progress is usually not immediately apparent, is difficult to achieve. The greatest deterrent in this process is their fear of failure. A fear that can lead to their refusal to even risk failing and cause students to settle for not trying.
As many teachers have discovered, it is best to use positive reinforcement with students when they stumble, while simultaneously offering tips to help them improve. This acknowledges the progress they’ve already made and pushes them to go even further. Still, at one point or another many of my students—even adults, myself included—give up before starting. We decide not to pick up the pen or the racket, or whatever it is that confronts us.
Positive feedback doesn’t always provide a solution. So what does?
There have been numerous times when I have taught a student how to write a poem or hit a forehand, and they fully grasp the lesson. Yet, when their parents come to watch, the children shift their focus from what they have learned to their parents. They attempt to impress them and, quite naturally, not disappoint them. They look at them after every written line passes under their pen and after every swing. We’ve all been there.
My students know how happy their parents become when they succeed and assume their parents will feel equally disappointed if they don’t. Anticipating the possibility of disappointing their parents, the students begin to feel disappointment in themselves.
Failure often teaches more than success.
It is essential that young students acquire a healthy perception of failure. Parents and teachers should explain to their children and students that having pride in their successes does not mean that they should be disappointed when success is not immediately evident. Essentially, their pride is not derived from a sole success, but rather from the whole process of learning, including all those necessary failures on the path to mastery.
Teaching a proper understanding of failure is, in reality, teaching success.
By Sam Ladow, Sophomore at Tufts University