I think there is a lot to learn from athletic coaches. Yes, I think some of them put the classroom second to the field or court, but I think that is changing. However, if you want to learn about failing forward, talk to a good coach.
When learning sports, coaches rely more on the idea of learning by failing than in many educational arenas. Missed a tackle? Get up and try again. Struck out? What happened? How will you react next time? Muffed a serve? Let’s run it again. And again. And again. And again. Great players become engrossed in the challenge. Small successes build a thirst for more. Great teachers help them see the goal, and let them have as many tries as possible to get it right. Sure, there are contests to see where everyone is at, but those experiences are just higher-stakes versions of the same try and fail, try and succeed dynamic.
Funny how few classroom exhibit this behavior. Teachers whose students really strive to learn, build that trust and optimism by employing the same methods good coaches do. Once the challenge is set, students get as many attempts as possible to reach the goal. The teacher guides by helping them see where things can be improved, and by being there for support in times of loss of confidence, much like an athletic coach.
But here’s what happens too often in classrooms: Every dang try gets recorded in the gradebook. Every try becomes high stakes. That’s not how any of this works. In fact, the research consistently proves that this is detrimental. Students need room to fail and learn from failure.
Watch a kid play a video game. They play and fail, play and die, play and get lost, play and get stuck. They don’t often quit when they fail. They quit when they succeed. In fact, players have told researchers that games that are too easy become boring quickly, as do games that are too impossible. There is a sweet spot where the player knows the goal is achievable. Kids as young as four learn this. Maybe younger. Watch a toddler try to get something they want. They will try and try again.
This is the reality for learning. In fact, the classroom is often one of the only places in life where one cannot learn from failure. Most jobs don’t even record errors with the precision that teacher does when they grade homework and practice.
I was fortunate to be able to work with a progressive principal a few years ago to build authentic grading. I didn’t grade homework, practice tests, or learning activities. I tracked progress a bit, but it was for the benefit of the student only, so they could see how they were growing. At the end of the year, the results were dramatic. Students had learned more with far less hounding by me. Effort and motivation became intrinsic. Work completion actually went UP when I didn’t grade it. One student, who tried more often than anyone else to reach a certain target, said after succeeding, “I feel like I slayed a dragon.” Like my daughter, she beamed with pride and a new confidence that she can succeed even when things get tough. I bet she never felt like that about a graded worksheet.
If you would like to stop grading homework and attempts at learning, don’t wait. Find a way. If you need advice, check out the work of Carol Dweck, Daniel Pink, or Mark Barnes.