Monday, September 19, 2011

Let Them Fail
The Deprivations of Growing Up Without Messing Up

Tape installation by Stephen Doyle. Photograph by Stephen Willis for the New York Times.
There’s a fascinating article by Paul Tough in last week’s New York Times Magazine. The article follows the parallel and cooperative, but very distinct, character education initiatives at KIPP’s NYC flagship school KIPP Infinity, and at its Infinity’s North Bronx neighbor, Riverdale Country School. The pairing is an excellent one, because these schools fall on either side of the philosophical divide in contemporary education: KIPP is a No-Excuses charter school serving low-income students of color in the south Bronx. Riverdale is a high-end private k-12, with the looser, more Romantic, and more Progressive educational outlook that is common among New York City’s elite private schools.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff in this article, but perhaps the most interesting theme is the one that inspires article’s headline: “What if the secret to success is failure?” That phrase refers to a character strength that psychologists call grit. It’s the ability to overcome adversity, to bounce back from failure and frustration, to dust yourself off and keep going. It’s a quality on which both Riverdale and KIPP put a great deal of emphasis, because it appears to be a key ingredient of success in life. At the end of the article, Tough raises an interesting question: does the privilege of Riverdale’s students, and the reluctance of middle- and upper-class parents to allow their students to fall prevent them from developing grit?

It’s a great question, and it’s relevant far beyond the walls of Riverdale Country and KIPP Infinity. At play here are not only demographics, but an entire approach to child rearing favored by contemporary wealthy, educated parents, one in which children are not allowed to fail.

Thus, should a child hit any road-bumps in her academic career, private tutors, homework helpers, and organizational coaches are brought in to buoy her, before her weak understanding or lack of effort have any serious consequences. When these measures prove unsuccessful and children end the year with an inadequate grasp of course material, schools are usually highly creative in finding solutions that will stay off permanent records. My own college alma mater, an institution rife with misguided Romanticism, allowed students to drop a course as late as the final day of the semester, without leaving any mark on their official transcript. Some private grade schools simply do not put fails on transcripts, whether the student drops the class or not. I’ve observed incidents in which students who, through extreme negligence, had failed to receive credit for a course were able to avoid even the moderate consequence of having to repeat the course, by attending some private tutoring and taking an exam.

There are a lot of factors that lead to this kind of coddling. Schools want to keep their college record high, so they’re motivated to help students maintain pristine transcripts. Parents are driven to the same ends by anxiety over their students’ future. Somewhere below these more immediate motivations, lies the Romantic approach to pedagogy, which views children as naturally good, creative, and brilliant and seeks to shield them from the bruising and corrupting influences of society. Thus, Romanticism is not merely in incidental conflict with the development of grit; it is explicitly opposed to that development.

It’s not only slackers and underachievers who are over-coddled in privileged schools. Indeed, if a student is sufficiently irresponsible, his poor decisions will probably catch up with him eventually. Students with significant learning disabilities are similarly likely to encounter bruising hurdles in the long run. No, the category of kids most in danger of failing to develop grit are smart privileged kids who follow the rules. These kids can easily get all the way through college and well into the job market without encountering significant failure. I know about this because, well, I’m one of them.

Reading Tough’s article, I was reminded of a conversation I once had with a school administrator about the difficulty of hiring effective teachers. “[Something] I’ve realized about recruiting really smart people [is] they've never truly struggled with anything,” he told me. “They’re used to working hard, and getting fairly immediate results and teaching doesn’t work like that. So it’s breaking them down mentally.” (It was clear from the context that “really smart people” coming from underprivileged backgrounds did not come with the same drawbacks.)

The comment resonated with me, because I’d had precisely that experience, when I got my first job at a charter school. I was twenty-five at the time; I’d hitch-hiked halfway across America, traveled solo for a year in China, taught myself Chinese, and taught full-time for two years at a private school. Up until that point in my life, I’d never failed at anything I’d really worked hard at. I was, to say the least, ill-prepared to deal with the experience. I lacked the humility to turn things around quickly and lost a great deal of emotional energy on frustration that might have gone into improving the situation. When the year was over, I decided I wasn’t cut out for classroom teaching and did not go back to it for a year and a half, opting instead for tutoring and small-group jobs. I still have not taken a full-time job since that experience, nor have I tried to run a full-sized classroom in an inner-city school. It was not until close to two years after I finished my year at the charter school that I fully recovered from the sense of fear and incompetence that it had left me with.

There are a lot of factors that contributed to my experience at the charter school: I am far from a natural classroom-manager; the students were inner-city eighth graders at a school that had failed to convince them to love learning; the expectations for teachers were extremely high and the school culture tended to brand weak teachers with a kind of social shame. Had I had more grit and more experience with failure, I would still have gotten knocked around hard at that school, but I would have learned more quickly from my mistakes and from those around me; I would have had more strength and less fear in the face of my failure; and I would have recovered more quickly.

There’s a takeaway here for both teachers and parents: let your kids fail. Give them hard enough challenges that they won’t always succeed on the first or the second try. Make them struggle.

I’m currently reading Rafe Esquith’s Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire. If you’ve never heard of Esquith, I recommend looking into him; he’s a remarkable teacher, regarded by many as the best in the country—a true miracle worker. Esquith has a mini-chapter in the book—just a couple pages really—called “Failure is Good,” in which he relates an anecdote about a group of charter-school teachers who visited his classroom one day.

“These instructors were terrific,” he writes, “energetic, bright, and caring. However, I noticed a key mistake in their approach to reading. Their desire to help kids feel good about themselves was so pronounced that they never allowed students to get the wrong answer or take a fall.” On the day the charter teachers visited, the students were assembling Viking model rockets. One group of students kept making errors in their calculations, and the visitors, noticing the problem, repeatedly came over to correct the mistakes. Finally, Rafe “had to politely but firmly ask the guests to leave the kids alone”:

You don’t understand, Rafe, they’re doing it wrong.
I understand
Their wings are crooked.
Yes, they are.
The launch leg is glued too close to the nose.
That’s true.
And you’re just going to sit there.
Yes, I am.
But their rockets won’t fly.
Not at first…
And then the group will have to figure out why their rocket won’t fly. They’ll have to come back to class and figure it out for themselves. It’s what scientists do all the time.

One is inclined to wonder whether dialogues like this one really occurred as written. The guest sounds a little like one of those ingénues who show up in Plato's dialogues to ask all the dumb questions and help Socrates make his points. But whatever the veracity of the dialogue, the point, I think, is well taken.

Other Interesting Items from the Article

Measurement & Intangibles

Riverdale and KIPP Infinity provide a lovely example of the differing attitudes towards intangible qualities that I have discussed in previous posts, and the application of those attitudes towards values education. In its character education program, Infinity relies on measurement (they now give each student a “Character Report Card”) and behavioral mod tactics that focus on outward behaviors rather than mental states (see pages 6, 7, and especially 8, in the article). Riverdale eschews such direct instruction and quantitative emphasis. “I have a philosophical issue with quantifying character,” says Riverdale’s headmaster (see page 4, paragraph 4).

Performance Character vs. Moral Character

The article points out an important distinction that I had never recognized, between values that are about helping others and values that are about achieving success for oneself (see pages 5 & 6). The former, which some researchers call values of moral character, include things like sharing, helping others, and showing respect; the latter, called values of performance character, include attributes like optimism, perseverance, curiosity, and zest—qualities which will not necessarily make you treat others better, but will make you more likely to be admired and to succeed in life.

In previous posts, I have used the phrases “moral education,” “character education,” and “values education” more or less interchangeably, but this distinction reveals that the first term actually refers to a sub-set of the other two. The separation of moral from performance character strengths plays into debates about the relevance of character education to the purposes of schooling, which have been argued recently on this blog. Specifically, does the school have a responsibility to educate responsible, upstanding citizens or only successful, employable ones? Should inner city schooling provide stronger moral training or only upward mobility? And, if the purposes of schooling are purely utilitarian, what role, if any, should values education play in schools? Clearly, the distinction between performance and moral character adds a new angle to this debate, though, for me, it does not resolve it.

Martin Seligman

Tough gives a nice overview of psychologist Martin Seligman’s work on universal character strengths and learned happiness and the influence of that work on contemporary character education (see pages 1 & 2). Seligman has identified 24 human character strengths that he claims are universal across time and culture, from which Riverdale and Infinity have selected seven (including grit) that they deem most important.

Incidentally, KIPP’s adoption of Seligman’s ideas has given the anti-charter crazies some unexpected fodder, because Seligman got his start with a now famous experiment that involved administering electric shocks to dogs until they developed what’s called “learned helplessness,” work that he has defended via ends-over-means arguments; and because Seligman gave a lecture in 2002 at a gathering of US Navy personnel, organized in part by the CIA, that he reportedly didn’t realize would be used to refine torture and brainwashing techniques. Such incidents, whatever they tell us about the man, seem to me to have little bearing on the validity of his work on character education.

Less colorful but more relevant to the project of education is the way in which Seligman’s conception of character strengths has filtered out through the rest of the No-Excuses community, where lists of school values are often taken from Seligman’s master list of universal strengths, and are frequently displayed prominently in classrooms and hallways and placed at the center of school culture.


  1. I think you're giving "grit" too much credit. It isn't clear that it is recognized by more than one psychologist, singular. Nor is it actually one of Seligman’s traditional character strengths. Nor is there any evidence that KIPP is really measuring it in any meaningful way other than simply sticking a number on kids. Nor, for that matter, is the basic finding very surprising -- people that self-report to be focused, ambitious, and persistent are apparently better at sticking with tasks requiring focus, ambition and persistence.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Tom.

    I’m not deeply steeped in the field of positive psychology, so I can’t speak to the prominence of grit in that literature. The word itself may be a red herring, since you could call the attribute(s) that I’m talking about resilience or optimism or some combination of these. What interests me is that there’s an ingredient of success—an ingredient of which I’m well aware, I’ve had to cope with the lack of it—that middle-class parenting techniques directly prevent students from developing; and this quality, this grit or resilience or whatever you want to call it, is extremely important in an inner-city teacher.

    My evidence is anecdotal, of course. Duckworth’s is research based, and I think her finding is more impressive than your depiction: according to her research, the quality of being focused, ambitious, and persistent (by self-report) is a better predictor or your GPA and your likelihood to finish a difficult training program than is your IQ or your high-school grades. If that seems obvious, it’s because you’ve already intuited what Duckworth was trying to prove. That’s fine, and intuition tends to operate well in advance of social science research, but the ultimate point that Duckworth’s trying to make is important and not so obvious to most people: in many academic situations, your knowledge and your intelligence matter less than your attitude.

  3. In this economy and the future these children will face where a quarter of them and growing are in poverty, pragmatism and survivalism are more important than a privileged, white man's self-help.

  4. I want to say a word about decorum. It is clear that rules of politeness and civility are more easily broken on the internet than off. Indeed, the very capacity for empathy which keeps society from descending into chaos is severely dampened when one’s interlocutors are voiceless typists with nothing to identify or differentiate them but a screen name. The comments section of this blog, however, is a forum for rational, civil debate, and I ask my readers to address one another and myself with the same degree of respect and kindness that they would were we all face to face in the same room.

    In the comment above, Mr. Davis may or may not have a substantive point to make. If one reads for content alone, and infers what is not clearly stated, he seems to be arguing that the discussion of character education that I’m engaged in is too esoteric and fails to address the stark realities that today’s students are facing. If one reads my post and the article it was based on, one will see plenty of evidence that character education is precisely a pragmatic approach to improving lives. Duckworth’s research, Levin’s observations, and my own experiences all attest to this. No doubt, an argument could be made that these pieces of evidence are invalid, but Mr. Davis has not made such an argument.

    Whatever the substantive shortcomings of the above comment, however, what I most want to respond to is the characterization of this entire discussion of character values as “a privileged, white man's self-help.” That is snide, it is inflammatory, and what is worse, it implies (obliquely) that, as a privileged white man, my ideas and opinions on this matter are invalid. In short, it’s an intimidation tactic, and it degrades the discussion. Whether you're addressing me or another commenter, if you cannot be bothered to state your views in polite, substantive terms, please don’t bother to state them on this blog. In the future, such comments will be deleted.

  5. Thank you, Mr. Bean, for these highly informative posts on education in progressive "romantic" private schools versus education in "No Excuses" public schools. Other than Paul Tough's excellent article "What if the Secret to Success is Failure?," nothing on the internet has provided such rewarding food-for-thought on the subject.

    You've written quite a bit on teacher training and how it needs to focus on prospective educators spending far more time in the classroom under the apprenticeship of master teachers. Have you given any thought as to whether teacher training should include character education training as well? Certainly there is a lot of interest in this aspect of education lately: should schools of education include it as part of their curriculum?

    I think at one point in your blog you asked if a donor would come forward with $10,000,000 to help you institute teacher training incorporating more of a long-term apprenticeship model; if I were Warren Buffet or Bill Gates, I'd gladly donate to your cause. :)