Gifted-Ed Guru

How to cultivate and teach talented kids.

Encouraging Failure: Why Perfection Is Not Perfect

Failure might be exactly what the gifted person needs.

My fourth grade son brought home his interim report last week. It was buried amid a massive sheaf of papers: the week's graded papers; a fundraising notice to help a family in the community whose home recently had caught on fire; another fundraising notice to assist the PTA with their spring budget; a form letter from the principal about the importance of the work that the PTA does. The interim was in there, a wrinkled yellow sheet of the original triplicate. Its darkened creases made the grade report a tad difficult to read but we were able to make out the capital letters that showed what he'd earned thus far this third 9 weeks. For the second time this year, the interim showed that he had dropped a letter grade in one his subjects. The first time, he'd been stung by a B in reading. This time, it was spelling.

Frankly, my wife and I couldn't be happier.

Make no mistake: We do not encourage low achievement or a lackadaisical performance in education in our house. My son is equal parts cursed/blessed that he is the product of two parents that are teachers in public education by trade. As such, I am sure there are times when we subject him and the work he submits for his teachers to scrutiny that a child in a non-teacher household would never have to endure. We try to balance it as best we can. So that his teacher can get a clear picture of his abilities in math, for instance, we encourage Josh not to simply stop short on effort merely because he finds the tedium of double-checking his math facts boring. We monitor his time spent on writing a social studies essay so that he isn't whipping through the task just to rush off to his friend's house or, worse, play another game on his much beloved Playstation DS. We look it that essay to see if it addressed the original topic as assigned. We make sure it has his name on it and is the requisite number of paragraphs. But we do not correct his math practice and we do not tell him what kind of topic sentence would best start that particular paragraph about George Washington's importance to American history.

Are there times when we go too far? Probably. Are there times when we get that happy medium right? Sure. Josh's lower spelling grade—and previously, reading—show that to be true.

Still, if I'm being completely honest, we like our son's less than perfect performance.

                                                              ***

"Honey, we care less about the grade you get and much more about the effort you show." Countless children have undoubtedly heard such a sentence (or one similar to it) thrown around by parents—so often in fact that it risks becoming hackneyed. And yet, when it comes to gifted children, this statement is often met with dismay or confusion. As mentioned in previous columns (click HERE, for example), gifted students often sincerely struggle at a deep level with what they perceive as failure. And for the gifted student, that "failure" might merely equal a "lack of all As," or not getting the grade she thought/assumed she'd get. A fear of failure like this is a very real, often utterly intense, issue with the gifted.

For the gifted, this point is especially complex and multifaceted. Many of those who are gifted may make their way through education without a single challenge at all. They breeze through tests and homework; they make their teachers look good because they ace the state's standardized tests. They spend little time on homework or studying in general because they can get it done in school or maybe on the bus ride home. Rarely, spending a full hour at home on an assignment is not so bad.... While their peers are sweating that upcoming high school calculus final, they are sweating—well, they are not sweating, really. Frankly speaking, school is no big deal.

But then there comes the time, that first time, when the effort expended does not yield the expected or assumed results—and then there's genuine anxiety.

For the elementary student it might be his fourth grade language arts teacher. He knows that teachers are normally thankful that anyone just remembers even to put a period at the end of a sentence ("Pshaw. Easy!"). But suddenly now, this year, he is busted for not correctly capitalizing "German shepherd" and the teacher writes a paragraph of comments on the last page of his essay in order to make suggestions for improvements...only. Gone is the typical praise. Alternatively, there's the high school student who in the past has always been able to tune out the science teacher because, between the PowerPoint presentation offered on Blackboard and the textbook itself, she'll figure it out later. But then, lo and behold, that material about covalent bonds proves to actually be demanding, more heady material. And the next day a pop-quiz takes her by surprise. Confidence crumbles and anxiety kicks into overdrive.

And yet, paradoxically, this type of letdown might be exactly what each student needs.

What we as parents, educators, friends and colleagues must do is let those who are afraid of failure know is that there is no such thing as failure; there's only information. The message needs to be clear: if you do not "fail," if you do not know what failure is (whether it is genuine or perceived failure), you will not be equipped with the skills to learn from that experience.

Failure provides opportunity. This is the occasion where that high school student is, finally, forced to learn what real achievement of success in the long term requires. Here is her opportunity to question where she went wrong in her assumptions about what it takes to really and truly grasp unfamiliar, challenging material. Here is where he is offered the chance to experience the frustrations that other students feel when they offer their work and see only suggestions for later improvement. In both cases, the opportunity offered by the "failure" is the chance to learn or acquaint oneself with what true effort might really feel and look like. "How do I do this thing called ‘studying'?" "How do I really develop what the teacher calls a ‘cogent argument'?" "How do I ask the teacher/professor for help?"

Surely, from an utterly pragmatic and economic viewpoint, it's better for this individual to figure these issues out now than when he/she is in college for the first time and is paying a massive tuition bill for the same lessons!

In the end, athletes, business entrepreneurs, politicians, parents, and everyone in between all know the following to be true: recovery from failure is what encourages risk-taking. Recovering from failure encourages growth. So you've been knocked down or unpleasantly surprised. It wasn't your first time and, you know, it will not be your last. You analyze the process, you regroup, and you try again.

Oh, sure, if you never fail, you won't have to do all that "tedious stuff." But that's not real life.

Just ask my son.

Christopher Taibbi specializes in gifted education. He has coauthored several books on teaching.

more...

Subscribe to Gifted-Ed Guru

Current Issue

Dreams of Glory

Daydreaming: How the best ideas emerge from the ether.