I have been following a new column called “Under the Microscope” by Sara Whitlock, a graduate student in biology at the University of Pittsburgh. As the mother of a young girl, and founder of a school for gifted learners, coming across a young female scientist sharing her personal stories was of particular interest to me; I always have an ear to the ground for the voices of role models and thought leaders in their respective fields that can inspire the students at our school.
Recently I saw her name again, this time in Scientific American, which republished one of her articles about why many students either do not pursue or drop out of a science curriculum or career — because they “don’t fail well.” Ms. Whitlock speaks of the importance of learning how to fail, to build resilience, to be comfortable with the risk of failing, so that you can push yourself further, both intellectually and in your work. She speaks of her own experience, when she needed to learn that hard lesson as a freshman in college… and continues learning it today.
She describes having watched fellow science majors drop out of science programs because they could not overcome the challenges of even one failure or missed expectation, and has hope for the future competitiveness of American students in the field of scientific research if we can develop resilience in our young students. Since she has persevered through a whirlwind of emotional stress and has learned to celebrate growth through failure, she makes a commitment to “pay forward” the benefit of mentors who shared their own failures with her — she wants to develop and strengthen the resilience of younger students to be able to recover from failure and channel that learning and experience into growth. A wonderful story from an admirable young woman.
We published a post last year on Supporting and Encouraging Failure in the Classroom, which is a key component of our own school program. Particularly in collaborative, projects-based learning classes, our teachers give plenty of room for students to test their hypotheses and to self-direct their work, while they coach — and guide their recovery when they fail. Gifted students have very high expectations for their own work and results, and may strive for perfection in everything they do (without the possibility of perfection, some may choose not to engage in something at all). Failure can be even more devastating when combined with anxious behavior or other emotional intensities.
While Ms. Whitlock is absolutely right about the importance of resilience, I contend that its necessity extends far beyond one subject or field. Students must experience the iterative process — try, fail, adjust, try again, etc. — in more disciplines than just science; they must have this same attitude about risk and failure as a general intellectual approach to school, in particular, and to learning and life, in general. After all, this cycle does not appear only in science classes: we must make an effort to explicitly embrace, endorse, and emphasize the presence of these two phenomena across the curriculum, in building executive skiils, across the school day, in all grades, and at home.
Students must learn that the value of intellectual risks, failure, and resilience pervades all kinds of thinking and, indeed, into life beyond school. The future of our American students’ competitiveness in creativity, discovery and innovation across all fields and industry demands it.