Tuesday, July 31, 2012

It's OK to be wrong

(Cross-posted at LauraVanderkam.com)

Over at CBS MoneyWatch today, I have a post on “5 reasons you should fail more often.” This post came out of an experience last week on vacation of doing puzzles with my 5-year-old. I realized he seemed hesitant to try pieces, in part because he viewed trying a piece in the wrong spot as making a mistake -- something one wouldn’t want to do. This was obviously slowing the puzzle-doing down considerably. I don’t care about doing puzzles quickly but I do hope my child doesn’t get too hung up on the idea that everything has to be done right the first time. I hope he doesn’t think people are “good” at puzzles and “bad” at puzzles and trying a piece in the wrong spot indicates that you are “bad” at such things.

I’ve written before of Carol Dweck’s famous experiments on praising children for effort rather than ability. When children view their performance on a task as a result of some innate and unchanging characteristic -- you’re a smart kid or you’re good at puzzles -- they become risk averse. After all, failure would show your label is wrong. So best not to attempt anything too difficult, and put that identity in question. When children view performance as a result of how hard they are trying, however, then failure is less scary. Maybe you just didn’t try hard enough. You can always try harder, whereas you cannot magically become more smart.

So I dutifully spouted such motherly advice as “Look, I’m trying pieces in the wrong place too! That helps me figure out where else they might go! We just have to keep trying. That’s the fun of puzzles!” I praised my kid’s effort and made sure not to say “wow, you are good at puzzles” or any such thing.

But broadly, I have been thinking of other activities that reinforce the idea that trial and error is part of life, and not a case of Error with a capital E. Blogging for different outlets has certainly helped me with this. One of the beautiful things about blogging is I can try lots of different ideas. Some get no attention whatsoever -- the blogging equivalent of failing -- and some just explode. Oftentimes, I am completely wrong about what people will find interesting. Good to put things out there as concepts before I invest too much time in them.

The Olympics is also a good example of the inevitability of failure (with a little f). The best volleyball teams give up points against good competition. Imagine how many times those divers belly-flopped as they learned those beautiful somersaults! If they failed once and stopped they certainly wouldn’t be competing now. Missy Franklin doesn’t win every heat she enters. In her amazing 2-events-in-10-minutes performance yesterday, she squeaked into the finals in her first swim before winning gold in the second.

How do you teach your children that getting something wrong, or losing, isn’t always, or even often, bad?


'Nother Barb said...

My younger son had a VERY hard time losing when he was young. Even if he was just "behind" in Sorry! or checkers, his lip would start to quiver, and it could eventually blow up into a tantrum. So we started every game by wondering who might win, and what the winner would say: "Good Game!", and who might lose and what the loser would say: "Congratulations, Good Game!" Midway through the game, we'd talk about it again, and again closer to the end, especially if he was behind. He learned to handle it all. Later, when he played soccer, he cracked up the coaches by saying "We ALL won! 'Cause we had fun!" He still likes to win, but he's not afraid to lose. Although, even at 13, his lip might still start to quiver, he handles it, and that's success.

'Nother Barb said...

It just occurred to me that that same son still has issues with getting something wrong. He often has missing assignments in school, and come to think of it they are usually in the gifted LA and math classes (though, they have the most homework, too). When I ask him about them, he says he doesn't want to talk to the teacher about their status because they'll think he's irresponsible. I try to explain that it would be responsible to address the issue. But maybe he is also concerned that his work isn't perfect? He will sit down and do a dozen math assignments in a night, turn them in, and they're correct, but now they have points off for lateness. Hmm, I guess we still have something to work on.

In an aside, the day I read your post, my warehouse store magazine featured an article on Sir Ken Robinson who advocates education reform and creativity. One quote: "If you're not prepared to be wrong, you'll never come up with anything original." How timely!

Laura Vanderkam said...

@'Nother Barb: So true that getting things wrong is part of learning what might be better. It is a tricky question of how to structure classrooms so people learn what they have to learn, but also learn how to learn on their own.

Anonymous said...

We use are senses to a heightened degree, naturally. Much of what we can do feels innate. School is mainly a time to participate, socialize and be a part of our community. Being wrong is a philosophical debate for us, because the opposite is being right. The reaction to being wrong is normal; how, why, can you change it?

lgm said...

We never had an emphasis on right vs wrong...too black and white for a gifted child that sees shades of grey. It was more of 'how do you figure?' and 'how did you decide to do .. ? What if...?

We also headed off the school problems, for example 'b' vs 'd' issues by picking up and discussing the child's conclusion that in writing, this shape was considered to be two different letters when it was rotated and pinned to the paper. Some K teachers can see that and some can't.

Anonymous said...

Igm is right on. Best thing about the web: There is always someone somewhere going through the same type of experience. Thank you for sharing.