Monday, January 17, 2011

Room for Failure

Back long ago when I was a wee undergraduate lass, there was a mathematics professor at my university, let's call him Smith. I have no idea what caliber of researcher Professor Smith was back then, looking now at his citation count in Google Scholar I'm not feeling impressed, but maybe those sorts of numbers are more common for Math.

We undergraduates knew Professor Smith not for his mathematical brilliance, but for his tendency to insult people when they came to his office hours and asked questions. I.e., "How could you not know that? You're stupid." To my knowledge he was completely gender-egalitarian in doling out insults, in fact I first heard about his behavior from a male student.

Yesterday when I read Amy Chau's WSJ article, "Why Chinese Mothers are Superior", I thought back to Professor Smith. In those days we all though Professor Smith was a jerk with no social skills, a demotivator, and a poor excuse for an educator. But it occurs to me - maybe he was tough on us because he expected us to be top notch students, and thought we should be pushing ourselves harder. Maybe he came from a cultural background where calling people stupid is acceptable practice and he missed the memo that it is Not Okay in the US.

Growing up, I was lucky to have parents who did not flip out when I got a low grade, and teachers who were always respectful and kind towards me. I did hear tales of some people whose parents would flip out when they failed a test, and I do wonder what effect that has on the developing mind. Does it lead students to cheat? Commit acts of self-harm when they fail? Drop out of school entirely? (I have no doubt it is a major contributor to grade-grubbing).

We seem to stress measured, quantifiable success both in education and in science - receiving high scores, publishing positive results. But I really wish there was more room for (and encouragement of) failure. I wish more stories were told about how a lot of good science comes out of making mistakes, or how a lot of brilliant thinkers flunked out of school.

Once I gave a talk and a young student came up to me and said, "Thank you so much for telling us about the mistakes you made in your research. I've never seen anyone do that before." I was astonished. It just always seemed like the honest thing to do.


  1. Nice post! Being comfortable with "failure" is SO important. If you are always right when you are doing research then you are doing it wrong. Even as a student, if you are afraid to be wrongthen it is nearly impossible to learn.

  2. There are a number of cultures in Europe and Asia where tough love is the norm in both education and parenting (I grew up in one such culture), and perhaps there is something to be said for it. In grade school and undergrad, none of my teachers were kind, supportive, or approachable by any stretch of imagination: they were tough, strict, and had high expectations. Excellence was expected and thus praise was rare, criticism was harsh and explicit because perfection was the norm. It does leave scars, but I suppose it is one way to raise overachievers...

    What I see here in the US is great focus on young people feeling good about themselves at all times (I am certainly guilty of worrying about my kids' self-esteem). I fear that lavishing praise even for mediocre performance degrades the value of true achievement, and possibly depraves the children (or students) of feeling really good when they achieve something really, really hard. Most annoyingly, what I see is that gratuitous praise results in many obnoxious and arrogant people who think much more highly of themselves than warranted by their skills or achievements.

  3. This is a really thoughtful post. I think there is an intermediate space between the tough love approach and the "self-esteem" approach. I can say that my parents used a more tough love approach with me, and the message I took away was that nothing I ever do is good enough. Fortunately, I was pretty good at a few things (especially school), so all ended well enough. But what if that weren't the case? I know at least a couple of kids who cracked under the pressure.

    In my large undergrad course, after the first exam (when many of the students who are used to being the top of their class suddenly realize that is no longer the case), I talk about one of the rough patches in my own academic career, how I responded, and what happened afterwards. I find my students really appreciate someone who is successful talking how they responded to a time that they weren't.

  4. My parents didn't quite resemble the Tiger Mother style. They didn't care about me playing the violin or getting first in everything per se. They were less about specific goals and more about my work ethic. Which I think is better. So I did similar things, like math exercises until my hands hurt from writing. Not to get some particular score, just to work through the frustration, develop some persistence and see the improvement for myself.

    The message I took away being that I can always do better, or more. That's an attitude that is useful at times, and not at others.

    I generally agree that failure is something students should understand is an inevitable part of life. Especially graduate students.

  5. Thanks for the comments, all.

    I too tend to think there is a middle road. Both extremes can be problematic in American society, and if anything I think the over-the-top-praise-lavishing helicopter parents are actually worse in the long run than the tough-love parents. The helicopter parents I fear give children an unrealistic picture of the world - that everything is Fair and Just and They Will Succeed No Matter What. I think this can be disappointing when the reality of an oft unjust world sinks in.

    I think learning to face and try to overcome difficult things is a critical aspect of development and learning. But I also think it's good to teach kids that it's ok to give up sometimes too, and remember that ultimately we are fallible human beings.