Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Op Ed Response to 'Failure' Articles in The Globe

The Globe’s pieces on ‘failure’ (Aug.31 & Sept.1) makes some very important points but readers were badly served by the headline. These stories are not about the value of failure, and certainly not about ‘crashing and burning’; rather, they are about efforts to help students achieve success by learning from their mistakes and limitations. The whole goal in all these cases is success through coaching, feedback and persistence. Good athletes or artists, for example, don`t always reach their goals, but they do see themselves as competent and getting steadily more so, not as failures. It would be a gross misrepresentation of what Paul Tough has to say, and of the broader research on these issues, to conclude that more failure would be a good step towards better results in our school system or anywhere else.

One of the clearest findings in all the research on psychology, supported by thousands of studies in many different fields, is that failure tends to depress effort. When we are not good at something, and don’t see much chance of getting better, our natural instinct is to try to do less of it. Note the important difference here; the issue is less how well we are doing than whether we see a way to improve and be successful. Simply failing, then, is mostly discouraging to people. Nor does Paul Tough suggest at any point that failure itself produces later achievement – a contention that would be contrary to all the evidence. Rather, it’s the guidance around improvement that matters. In the case of schools, this means teachers and other adults who believe in students and support them in doing better. We have lots of evidence in Ontario and elsewhere that those practices do indeed result in better achievement.

It’s very dangerous to draw generalizations from single cases as the Tough interview does. While some people may beat the odds, they are ‘the odds’ precisely because most people don’t beat them. Our failure to understand this basic principle is why casinos make money (and so many people lose so much gambling). It is also the reason that students in poor communities have to be more motivated and more persistent to achieve the same level of success as their more fortunate peers. The question we have to ask is not what is possible for exceptional people or under unusual circumstances, but just the opposite: what would be most helpful at the system level, for all young people, under normal conditions. Relying on what a single person can do, while it may be inspirational, does not make for good policy; despite Oscar Pretorius, or Canada`s own Arne Boldt, we would not have more great athletes if we had more people without limbs.

There already is lots of failure in our schools. More than 25% of students don’t finish high school in the standard four years, meaning they are failing something along the way. Even more students fail at least one course along the way. (And by the way, in our cost conscious time the cost of those extra courses amounts to several hundred million dollars annually.) We know that a student who fails even one course in grade 9 is much less likely to graduate, making the point again that failure now does not tend to lead to success later, but the opposite. Large numbers of students learn that they are not good at things in school, from reading, to math, to physical education. Just ask kids and you will learn that most are acutely aware of their deficiencies.

On the positive side, while Margaret Wente suggests in a question in the Tough interview that ‘nothing works’ in helping poor children be more successful, that is not so. In fact we have growing international evidence of what does work, and not just in one classroom with an exceptional teacher but across whole systems - for example Poland, Chile, Shanghai, Korea, Montgomery County in Maryland, Hackney in England, and even Ontario, where graduate rates have risen significantly in the last few years. It takes persistent effort, high expectations for all students, high quality teaching, good outreach to families and communities, and most of all a relentless determination to do what is needed to help all students develop their capabilities – all the kinds of supports mentioned by Tough.

It is entirely true that we do students no favour by protecting them from life’s challenges. No students – or anyone else – should get something that they don`t deserve (which is why high inheritance taxes might be a good policy to help reduce our deficit!). The goal is to develop public systems, whether education or child welfare or criminal justice, to help people discover and build on their strengths. Occasional failure might be part of this, but widespread failure cannot be the basis for success any more than a company with a high proportion of defective products or poor services can make a profit!

Ben Levin, Professor and Canada Research Chair, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education