Learning from Mistakes When Stakes Are High

kid-taking-a-test21When my son was three and we had just furnished our first house, he took a marker and drew pictures on our new Mexican console. I remember walking into the living room and feeling the rise of heat behind my ears. He was so small and innocent but all I could see were the black marks and the price tag of the furniture piece. I grabbed his hand, yelled a few words and demanded that he scrub the console with me. We scrubbed together for a half hour until it was clean. To this day I regret the severity of my reaction. I have often wondered what damage I might have inflicted on his young psyche and his ability to take risks and learn from mistakes. Seventeen years later with my son in college, I read a lot of articles written for teachers about learning from failure and building a culture of resilience amongst students. In my experience this is a tricky and nuanced topic especially when we consider the social and emotional dynamics of living in an inequitably society.

My parents and my husbands’ parents, for example, were a lot less tolerant of mistakes. For them it was a sign of their time but also a mindset correlated to adversity and fear of scarcity. No one can argue that it is significantly harder to embrace a mistake when we’ve only got one chance, or one item that cannot be replaced. Our parents grew up with one Sunday outfit. Stain it or soil it was a big mistake. The money that came in needed to stretch as far as possible to cover basic needs. If an item broke, or it was lost— that was it. We’d have to do without. There were swift consequences when we failed at an assigned task. Sometimes a slap or a punishment accompanied the pain of failure as a reminder to do better next time. We understood the high stakes of human shortcoming.

Things are better now. We try to be more compassionate, loving, easy-going with our children. But like the incident with the console, it is easy to fall into the trap of anger and fear. As a parent and educator, I feel like the stakes are high. What will we do if our children make a mistake we cannot fix? As members of a flailing middle class, we live with the fear of falling into poverty. Daily life is filled with anxiety and attention to detail. There are so many precarious factors such as rising housing costs, accessing good schools, job stability and healthcare— we find ourselves saying things like, be careful and don’t get hurt because we can’t afford medical bills. Don’t flunk that test because we can’t afford to borrow more for tuition. Don’t forget, don’t do this, be vigilant …. or else.

I think a lot about the literature on learning from failure and building resiliency in kids. I love the idea and the thinking is certainly in line with what we know about teaching and learning but it feels disconnected and out of touch with the reality teachers, students and families face every day. Such as high stakes standardized testing. Or school admission and application requirements. What is the real cost associated with academic failure in society? This weekend, I read about the recent outrage of parents from an Upper West Side public school when they were told about the city’s integration plan requiring that they reserve a quarter of its seats to “low-performing” students. Parents protested loudly. They believe such a plan will diminish their own children’s chances of getting accepted to the city’s most desired schools. Is their fear justifiable or are they bad, intolerant people? The issues involved are hard to unpack especially when we are beholden to a system that is driven by high-stakes testing, evaluations and inequitable funding. How is it possible for any of us to embrace failure or be tolerant of anything less than perfection and ‘high performing’ in an environment such as this?

My son just called to inform me that water spilled on his costly laptop damaging the motherboard. I would be lying if I told you my reaction was compassionate. After I hang up the phone I sit quiet and sullen. How is it possible that after all my education, mindfulness and meditation practice that I can still fall into the trap of madness?

I pick up the phone with resolve and I shower him with words of wisdom, encouragement and love. I tell him “it is just a computer.”

I am doing my best under the circumstances but I know I am part of the whole. We can do better with practice. We can plant the seeds for a new generation driven by love and tolerance for human frailty.

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