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Educators Urged to Allow Their Students to Fail

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Success is not as easy as it appears to be on first glance, according to noted author Malcolm Gladwell who gave a thought provoking keynote Sunday evening at the National Education Computing Conference in Washington, D.C. before a capacity crowd.

Gladwell, author of the New York Times best sellers the Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers, addressed several thousand teachers about what learning really looks like.

"What you get [in education] is a simple function of what you put in. That is the beautiful and powerful idea behind learning... Sometimes the struggle to learn something is where the actual learning lies," he said.

Gladwell used the example of the well known rock band Fleetwood Mac saying that it took them ten years and sixteen album failures before they produced their masterpiece Rumours. In the years before their success, they had a rocky path that included losing their founder Peter Green for a few years before he rejoined the group.

"When we look at people who tend to master something, we have a tendency to telescope how long that took place. We underestimate how much time or energy it takes," Gladwell said.

When we examine the history of people who have mastered a field, we will see that on average it takes about four hours per day for ten years or what Gladwell calls the 10,000 mile rule. He gave an example of the Beatles who had played together 1200 times before they experienced success when they came to America.

So how does this relate to learning and the classroom in the 21st century? It shows that success comes with hard work, according to Gladwell. Few people succeed without hardwork. He gave another example of the KIPP schools that has one of the highest student success rates in the country with low income students. "Those students go to school 60% more than their counterparts. Their motto is "Success is hard work," he said.

Gladwell stressed that one of the things we need to change in the schools is the attitude that success comes easily. Students need to know that to succeed they need to work hard.

He is right about that. In today's world, many students in the U.S. schools aren't taught to work hard. The complain about the homework load; or they complain that the teacher wasn't clear and they can't do the homework. They don't think to figure it out themselves. In fact, schools today are worried that the students are too stressed and make adjustments. There is a trend to dumb down the curriculum so that everyone can "succeed." Schools are looking to eliminate laning or tracking of students.

Another of Gladwell's points was that people who fail but don't give up are actually better able to build on their failures. They learn how to work hard in pursuit of a goal.

In fact, he said, in compensating for a failure students are really just learning how to be better. They try harder and come up with new pathways because inherent in failure is feedback...the feedback of why you didn't succeed.

He talked about the dyslexic student who has to work very hard to get to the same point as the average student. He learns that he can't do it the way everyone else does it, but if he really wants to learn, he figures out alternative methods and in doing so he learns many other useful skills.

They learn leadership skills because they needed a group of peers around them to help them; they learn how to delegate; they learn how to problem solve and they usually perfect oral communication skills. "Their dyslexia turned out to be an an advantage, they learned how to compensate effectively."

In fact, there are many famous dyslexics who are heads of companies now--- Richard Branson, Henry Ford, Charles Schwab, just to name a few.

They never gave up trying.

Gladwell gave another example of the paradox of small class sizes. Studies are inconclusive when it comes to the importance of small class size. In fact, the students who score best on international tests come from countries where class sizes are huge--China and Japan. He hypothesized that perhaps being in large class sizes encourages students to be more self-reliant. Perhaps they are helping each other

"Perhaps here in America we don't give out kids an opportunity to flex their compensation muscle," he said. We are afraid of failure, but it is through failure that students learn. Perhaps we should change our assessment system to allow students to make mistakes without the stigma of failure.

Failure allows for feedback and for modifications. In each instance of failure we learn, but if we refuse to try again, we are lost. Persistence and hard work are the keys, he said.

He ended commenting on an upcoming panel discussion entitled "Bricks and Mortar Schools are Detrimental to the Future of Education."

Gladwell said, "Whether it is bricks and mortar doesn't matter; what matters is how the learning takes place, not where the learning takes place." The applause he got indicated that most teachers thought he was right.

For up to date blogging on the NECC conference, go to http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/DigitalEducation/

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