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A collection of helpful articles on teachers and teaching

Change Your Mindset: Failure is a GOOD Thing!

What’s that old quote? “Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all?”  Let’s take that and combine it with another truism: “If at first you don ‘t succeed, try, try again.”  I know what you ‘re thinking.  This article is supposed to be about technology, and all she ‘s doing is spitting out clichés.  Bear with me, there’s a method to my madness.  Oops, there goes another one.

I believe that technology could be the golden ticket to changing the way we “do” education.  You ‘ve heard it before, I know.  But hear me out.  We need to be teaching more failure in our schools, and I think that computers and the Internet could be the best way to do this.

Imagine this scenario. (I ‘ll just remember it, because it really happened a couple of weeks ago in my classes.)  You ‘ve got first grade students and they ‘re just learning how to use the computer.  Only a year ago they were refining their ability to write the letters in their names.  This year, they have to type in their usernames to log in to the computers in the lab.  For many of them, using a computer mouse is a fairly new skill, and they have little hands on those big devices.  How best to motivate them to improve their on-screen navigation skills? Let’s use the Paint program to make and decorate Christmas trees!

First, we have to learn how to draw rectangles, squares, ovals, and circles.  Those squares and circles need to be perfectly square or round, so we ‘ll use the Shift key along with the mouse to achieve this.  Then they need to use the paint can tool to “fill” their shapes with colors.  Once they have a handle on this, we move on to the polygon tool to make overlapping triangles atop a lone stem of a rectangle.  Some green and brown paint filling and there you have it: Christmas trees in September.

Are all of the kids naturally good at creating Christmas trees on the computer? Of course not.  They ‘re only six, after all.  But now, on the computer, even the ones who might be good at it on paper with markers or crayons have to overcome the same obstacles.  And for those kids who, at six years old, have already decided they ‘re “no good at art,” we have a new medium, a new game if you will.  And if they want to start again, there ‘s no mess and no wasted materials.  Just File -> New, and begin afresh.

In fact, the more times they scrap their work and start over, the more times they practice navigating a menu with the mouse.  I am SO sneaky!  But even more important, they learn that you don ‘t have to do everything well or get everything right the first time.  There will be no overflowing wastebasket with heaps of failure piled around it.  When we ‘re finally all done, each student will have ONE piece of artwork to later use to grace the front of a Christmas card made for the folks at home.

What about this idea of letting kids fail?  It’s more far-reaching than persisting on a piece of artwork.  Have you read Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D.?  If not, and you’re a parent or teacher (or both), start coming up with more ideas for how you can encourage kids to “safely” fail in your presence.

The idea of Mindset is that people usually have either a “fixed” mindset or a “growth” mindset, and this facet of their psyche can have a profound effect on how they live, learn, and grow into healthy adults.  People with a fixed mindset believe that traits such as talent and intelligence simply exist in some people and not in others.  They believe that you either have what it takes or you don’t.  If you have it, you shouldn’t have to work hard, and if you don’t, all the hard work in the world won’t matter.  People with a growth mindset, on the other hand, believe that you can achieve success in any area through hard work and tenacity.

When people with the fixed mindset believe that they are good at something, they feel that their talent or gift just “is.”  Maybe he’s heard throughout his childhood that he is the smartest child in the class.  Or maybe she’s been told over and over how pretty she is or how talented an artist, athlete, or musician she is.  What happens when, inevitably, someone comes along who is better in some way?  Or what happens when, all of sudden, talent only gets you so far and you don’t know how to work hard to exceed where it’s gotten you?  What happens when you first get a failing grade or a negative report from a supervisor?  If those fixed mindset individuals define themselves based on the praise and recognition they’ve always received, their whole world comes crashing down.  Suddenly they’re not smart or talented or good at ANYTHING!

But if we teach children, from a very early age, that failure is a natural part of learning – that Edison had dozens of rejected patents for every one famous invention, that Michael Jordan wasn’t good enough to make the high school basketball team, and that Einstein was an extremely poor student in school – then they will be more willing to take risks, try new things, and believe that they CAN be successful.  Challenges can be perceived as fun, because they are not “do or die” situations.  Technology can give us the opportunity to “try, try again” without running the risk of wasting too much time or resources in the trial and error process.

Did I see some pretty funky Christmas trees? Of course I did.  There was a motley collection of Charlie Brown trees and Leaning Tree Towers of Pisa with just the occasional perfectly symmetrical tree with an amazing star on top.  But when their parents see the students’ artwork, they’ll adore whichever tree comes home with their child.  And I’ll have a lab full of computer-mouse savvy first graders.  Fail on, kids!


Diane Main is a Google Certified teacher who teaches technology integration in San Jose, California.

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