Learning from Failure

I read an article in the New York Times recently called “Learning from Failure” about America’s infatuation with success stories and the inherent danger that comes from this kind of thinking.  It talks specifically about how some organizations feel pressure to show progress in research, and innovations in science.   The article goes on to say that these organizations rarely make their failures transparent and what a shame this is “because it’s a basic principle of science that you get things right by analyzing what went wrong.”

This topic has been on my mind a lot in the past few weeks.  In my classroom, I have been noticing some, let’s say, inconsistencies in the kids’ development as of late.

I have been thinking just how non-linear development often is before learning takes a leap forward.   Maybe it’s not exactly a failure in science, but it’s a similar notion.  We teachers want to show successes just like any other profession, but it just doesn’t always work that way.

A parent approached me last week and told me that her son didn’t know his letters. She was concerned.  I was surprised to hear this and felt, at first a little defensive (Of course he knows his letters!) and then a little worried (He doesn’t know his letters?).

I took him aside to get an informal assessment on his literacy skills.   He was totally inconsistent.   He knew some letters.  Then changed his mind.  He said an “X” was a “Y” but then spelled the word “Yarn” correctly.   He looked at a “J” and exclaimed that it looked like a candy cane, rather than a letter.  Now I was feeling like a failure!

I’ve got to admit, my instinct was to begin drilling him.  I resisted the voice inside my head that said:  “He’ll know these letters by the end of the day!”  I played a couple of word games with him, trying not to show my concern when he couldn’t retrieve a letter’s name or when he continually referred to a letter by the image it looked like rather than the letter itself.

Truth be told, this little boy is behind the rest of the class in his letter identification.  And the other truth here is, I’m actually not that worried.

While sometimes, kids’ successes make teachers feel like they are having a professional success all their own (after all, your aptitude as a teacher is reflected in how well your class learns, right?), learning cannot be quantified simply in terms of things like “knowing letters”.   It’s really about each child’s thinking process, acknowledging where they are at in their own development, and determining how to motivate and support them individually.  And ultimately making sure that you can observe growth and expansion of thought over time.

Sometimes I need to remind myself to resist the urge to strive for the golden class.  The class that excels beyond the developmental benchmarks, whose academic achievements I can boast about.  The class that makes me feel accomplished as a teacher.

Learning from a rote standpoint comes easily to some children.  They know their letters.  Some are reading before they are 5 years old!  But, as I told the mom of my struggling little letter guy, until something is meaningful to a child, they often don’t get it.  Or more importantly, they don’t’ try to get it.

What is more significant, in my opinion, is that this child is expressing interest in a variety of materials and concepts that do have meaning to him.  Assuming there are no actual learning disabilities, his literacy skills will emerge through discovery and context.

Developmentally, early childhood education can be all over the place.  Some kids just look better from a cognitive perspective.  They have the traditional academic aptitude glow all around them.  Others are on a different trajectory.

A class of diverse learners can be complicated and challenging. But sometimes what seems like a failure in teaching can be an opportunity to investigate further, try another strategy, and create a success story of a different sort.





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