Teaching the Gift of Failure

10-Mar-18 | Categories: education | Tags: jessicalahey, sxswedu, yourprivateradio

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The gist:

In her closing keynote, Jessica Lahey spoke about autonomy, competence, and connection as a three way approach to development and achieving "flow". She addresses how parents and teachers need to allow for these experiences to enter children's lives regularly.

My reflection:

I couldn't agree more. And I'm not even a parent. Wait. Am I even allowed to agree or disagree if I don't have a kid? I'm sure it's easier to say than do, but I feel this is how I was raised. I don't care. I'm going to say it anyway. I agree.

Jessica spoke on some great themes. The biggest thing that struck me was her thoughts on autonomous parenting. Now, the only time I heard about this was from a couple that actually stated "we are autonomously parenting" (said with the great cavern echo effect). I'm sure that wasn't the expression they used, but that's what stuck in my head. And it was in the context of their kid learning "fire is hot" by trying to grab a candle. And I thought that was kind of weird, like a "wouldn't it be too late" kind of thought. Or running on a dock barefoot and a splinter was bound to happen. "They'll learn." And that kind of put a bad taste in my head. (Like that? You an also say, put a bad thought in your mouth.) That's learning?... maybe the hard way... when there's no other way to learn.

But when Jessica spoke on the notion of giving kids the autonomy, she was talking about it in the learning context. Kids need to get frustrated. "Kids that can't be frustrated can't learn as well." Well, I'd say the same for adults too. But, frustration is what needs to happen in order for something to become a part of you and become part of your long term memory. "It's ok, they'll take a breath and redirect." she said. So, this notion she termed "desirable difficulties" grabbed my attention. Seems in-line with the "grit development" stuff that I feel so many people lack.

<slight tangent>

So now I'm thinking, Derek, you adhere to that model with child learning and learning/growing development and yet, you won't go through "desirable difficulties" in relationships. Squash that thought. I'm adhering to a premise much more intrinsic than social-emotion development. The "me stuff". Yeah, it's selfish. Meaning, I CAN be bothered when I hit a hard route in climbing that I can't send. That's cool. I'll break through and it will be epic. I CAN be bothered by the frustration and the "desirable difficulties" when it comes to a better mile pace for my 5k runs. The internal stuff, right? But, it seems I CAN'T be bothered when it comes to life's social components. Meaning, I'm fine being alone and independent. Even more so, I feel I'm strongest when I'm independent. "If I'm going to do it, it's up to me." kind of thing. I CAN'T be bothered dealing with something that relies on the connection with someone else. I'm already a fucking weirdo, so I can't imaging putting that stress on someone else.

I bet you're not thinking about how someone can stay single for so long anymore. Ain't cha? "This Derek dude is something else."

The answer's clear now, right? It's because the relationship has never been that elevated in importance for me to count it as something that would add to my independent strength or my "person". Then comes the "you just haven't met the right person yet, Derek" conversation which turns on the broken record in my head. And while the other person's talking I only hear "they don't understand, they don't understand, they don't understand". That and probably The Smith's "You just haven't earned it yet, baby."

Sure, it may change, but probably won't change anytime soon.

</slight tangent>

Back to kids. They need to get frustrated about doing stuff. About needing to increase their "5k mile pace" stuff in learning.

Where am I going with this? I'll pin this on the cork board with a story while I was teaching in NH.

I had a student in my Accelerated Algebra class. She was great. She tried so hard. In fact, she was the student with the LL Bean backpack big enough to hold all her books for the day, so she wouldn't have to go back to her locker and ever be late to class. Great student, quiet student - not super social, not an outcast, just a chill student. One day I caught her nodding off in class and I just smiled it off. She was a good student and picked back up after a couple minutes. It was after lunch, sleepy time happens. Then it kept happening. I asked to chat after class.

I asked her to explain her day to me from waking up to going to bed. And she told me about how she started doing homework as soon as she woke up, came to school, stayed on top of her classes, then tried to do more work before getting home because then started horse riding, music class, and dance class. Dinner was at 9:30/10 when she got out of the activities, then it was time for more homework until about 1am. We started school a 7 or 7:30am.

Her "desirable difficulties" were never entertained because there was no time or energy to entertain them. It's not that she wouldn't go through and work on them. She didn't have anything left in the tank!

So, I called home to talk to mom and dad about the situation. They admitted to experiencing it at home and knew her kiddo was slipping in school. (of course, she was also trying to maintain top honor status for scholarships) So, we chatted a bit about the things I was seeing, and then there got to be a point in the conversation where the parents asked me, sincerely/genuinely, "What do you think we should do?"

Parents are coming to me for help?! I was floored. I did a head shake. Paused, then I was able to say something. "It's too much." She was such a great student and trying to do so much, it was hurting her. She wanted to excel in so many things that she couldn't. She wanted to get to those "desirable difficulties" and have them. She knew what it meant to struggle and breakthrough. But she couldn't because she was weighed down with so much. So, I told the parents to take it way back. Pick 1 extra thing to do, at a time. Yeah, she may miss out on something. But just pull it way back. She can rotate the 1 extra thing, so she doesn't lose passion in other activities. But I said what I think they'll find is that their kiddo will shoot through the ceiling at the one thing and be ready to move on without losing any of the awesome accomplishments she's earned. She can come back to each one she does and eventually, land on 1 or 2 that will be absolutely epic for her.

The parents implemented the advice. Their kiddo's grades went back to awesome status. She was amazing at the 1 extra activity. She wasn't tired in class and she looked happy and healthy. And as the year progressed, it kept going. She was amazing at another 1 extra activity and another 1 extra activity and her grades were perfect.

I'm not saying I'm a sage. NO ONE should ever take parenting advice from me. But somehow, this worked.

Even when you know that your kids need to be frustrated and get to their own "desirable difficulties", please make sure to implement your parent-spidey-sense to know when enough is enough.

From Jessica's keynote, I felt that what I had done for my student and her parents was ok, even though I wasn't a parent myself. Doing things as humans, and thinking about humans as humans, can lead to opportunities to help others even though you may never walk a day in their shoes.

SXSWedu session write-up. The following was taken from the session's page:

Veteran teacher, author, and education journalist Jessica Lahey breaks down the research on motivation, resilience and learning, and explains how autonomy-supportive parenting and teaching not only boosts kids' motivation, but improves educational outcomes. Using personal narrative and humor, Lahey explores the research on extrinsic and intrinsic motivators, praise, and learned helplessness, while offering instruction and assessment methods that promote deep, durable learning and engagement.


  • Click on the SXSWedu to access the session page.
  • Click on Jessica's picture to access her SXSWedu profile page.
  • Click on the recording bar to hear it. I didn't record it. I took the link from the SXSWedu session webpage and will last as long as they allow access to it.