Learning from struggle and failure

This morning Alix Spiegel had an interesting story on NPR’s Morning Edition concerning differing attitudes about the value of struggle in education. It said that  parents and teachers in ‘Western’ countries see intelligence as the cause of a positive outcome (like a good grade), whereas parents and teachers in ‘Eastern’ countries such as China and Japan value the role of struggle in the learning process. This recalled a conversation about parenting that I once had with a colleague at DePauw, Matt Hertenstein, a professor in the Psychology Department. He said that when his child did something well, he always said, “you really worked hard on that,” rather than “you are really good at that.” In our praise, should we be emphasizing work habit over affirmation of talent? Are they mutually exclusive? (Suzita Cochran also has something to say about this on her blog Play. Fight. Repeat.)

Students in my Latin class often struggle. As an archaic language, Latin is immensely complicated (there are more than 100 possible endings for a typical verb). Today we spent an entire hour on this sentence from Pliny’s letter 6.16, about the eruption cloud of Mt. Vesuvius, which erupted in AD 79 and destroyed Pompeii. Pliny says the shape of the cloud was like a pine tree, and then continues:

Nam longissimo velut trunco elata in altum quibusdam ramis diffundebatur, credo quia recenti spiritu evecta, dein senescente eo destituta aut etiam pondere suo victa in latitudinem vanescebat, candida interdum, interdum sordida et maculosa prout terram cineremve sustulerat.

Roughly: “For having been carried aloft as if on a very long trunk, (the cloud) was spreading out into some ‘branches’; I believe because–carried forth by a fresh blast, then settled down (when the blast weakened there), or even conquered by its own weight–it was disappearing to the sides, sometimes white and sometimes dirty and dappled, according to the earth or ash it had borne.”

It has some tricky bits, including the fact that the subject of the main verb (‘nubes’, or ‘cloud’) appears in the previous sentence (and not in this one), as well as some fun with participles, but it is not impossible. Yet all of the students wrestled with the sentence; given the task of writing out their own translation on the board, several did not get past six or seven words, even given 15 minutes to do so. Latin has the virtue of requiring systematic determination on the part of students, and so we broke the sentence down systematically, so as to recall the value of the process, and not just the product. Frustration and failure are a part of that process, as any Latin student knows (I sure did). Is not success after an arduous trial sweeter than a breezy victory?

In an educational system obsessed with test results as evidence of learning outcomes, are we missing the value of learning processes that incorporate struggle and failure? Are kids really afraid to struggle and fail, or do we teach them that fear? What about in situations where parents and teachers are not watching them? What do kids do then? Jesper Juul, professor at the NYU Game Center, has authored an interesting study about how kids deal with failure in video games. After all, failure constantly occurs in video games (players lose ‘lives,’ abilities, possessions, or even the game itself). Juul argues not only that “failure is central to player enjoyment of games,” but that “failure is central to the experience of depth in a game, to the experience of improving skills.” In other words, growth is the core satisfaction. Perseverance is essential to that recipe (try prying a 10-year old away from their video game until they finish a level).

I wrote recently about youth soccer players on an Olympic Development team struggling in a tournament. The coaches’ approach is all about putting players in situations where they have to solve problems. In about a third- to a half-second’s time, players have to do four things:

  1. Perceive the problem;
  2. Evaluate the nature of the problem;
  3. Compose a strategy to deal with the problem;
  4. Initiate the necessary motor skills and muscle memory to execute the strategy.

These four activities (the ‘Components of Reaction Time’) are the same required of any physically and mentally stressful action scenario; I learned them from my martial arts instructor, Steve St. Pierre, who got them from Bruce Siddle.

Some soccer players can ‘read’ the game more intuitively to recognize dangers and opportunities; some can creatively figure out what to do about them, and others have better technical skills to carry out their plan. Few players have all of these qualities, especially at the youth level, though it seems they get better with age. Add to that the fact that soccer is a low-scoring game. Much of the time, players’ plans fail. After all, 21 other players are trying to carry out plans (one particularly elusive aspect of coaching is how to help your players ‘get on the same page’). Soccer is an immensely complicated, constantly changing improvisation based on theme and variation. In effect, soccer is jazz. And jazz is hard (but worth it).

So it seems like kids can and do engage in scenarios where productive struggle and failure are part of the equation. In sports and video games and music! Do we have enough of those situations in our educational environments, where boredom is as great an enemy as incompetence? When they arrive at college, I think most students want to be challenged. However, increasingly few have been challenged in high school, so they arrive at college with poor work habits, unrealistic expectations of their actual abilities, and a strong fear of bad grades. This is not a healthy mix. By the time they graduate, most students have figured out how to recalibrate their expectations, develop more robust work habits, and challenge themselves (which is key to a fulfilling life). But in helping our kids grow up, we might consider how better to see, and use, the bright side of struggle and failure.

I even got a taste of that today, when having finished this post, I accidentally deleted it, and had to start all over again. It’s never too late to learn…

POSTSCRIPT (15 Dec. 2013): Here’s a wonderful essay on the essential value of failure by Costica Bradatan: “In Praise of Failure.”

3 thoughts on “Learning from struggle and failure

  1. Ah! Latin translations – I remember struggling in college with Catullus the hardest: was it his pithiness, his absolutely marvelous economy of language, or his subject matter of love that made me struggle? :-)

  2. Pingback: Castel Rigone, Weeks 11-12: Put Your Boots and Courage On | Shades of Umbria

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