“Kids need to win and lose” was the title of a recent Toronto Sun opinion article.

While I appreciate many articles written about this topic, I find that the complexities of learning and failure are often not captured.  But often they are the articles that get circulated the most.

A blog post by Gerry Connolly entitled, “Are we failing our kids by letting them win?” on The Learning Partnership (@TLPCanada) site requested feedback and ended with these questions:

Are we doing our children a disservice by not allowing them to fail or compete in elementary school?

Are we jeopardizing Canada’s future by over-protecting our kids?

How can our educators help children develop self-esteem and resilience?

I don’t sense that all kids are “winning”.  I think there are still many inequities.  When I hear suggestions that the “real world” and “competitive reality” should be a part of schools, I often think that it is the increase in competition that has caused some of the parenting and schooling trends and choices.  This may have inadvertently impacted student learning as well.

I continue to have many questions…

Who really are the contenders in a competitive learning environment?  Who really wins?  In what ways are the “winners” also losing?  Are the winners more able to cope with failure or adversity?  Are they without self-esteem issues?  I think that both self-esteem and failure are not consistently understood, and definitions may vary.  Do the calls to “embrace failure” and “grit” really mean a support for risk-taking, resilience and exploration?  Does it mean learning to cope with disappointment and/or adversity?  Where do responsibility, confidence and independence fit in?  Does it mean being comfortable with trial and error and having the time to do so?  Time to reflect on learning and process?  Can cooperation and collaboration fit into a competitive or win/lose learning environment?

Should we focus on creating environments and conditions that support any of the above – for students and teachers?  How do we create conditions that make it acceptable to “fail”?  But fail at what?  How often?  How do we know what students really learn from failure?  Alfie Kohn wrote an article addressing this.  I have also written on my blog about this topic here and here, and have linked other writers on these topics.

Our world has changed, as have our parenting approaches and teaching expectations.  If we truly have been too soft (or too hard) on kids, I wonder if it is a symptom of anxiety and uncertainty about opportunities and safety nets or “cushions”.  Jim Dillon wrote a post on the SmartBlog on Education, “Set the bar with a lot of cushions under it”.  The title refers to research by Amy Edmonson about optimal learning environments which have high levels of psychological safety combined with high levels of accountability.

Jim Dillon concludes his article with,

“When students can try and fail and not suffer consequences or judgment, they see learning as a process of getting better individually and collectively. Students will be much more likely to try to reach for that high bar and even try to jump over it, if they don’t have to worry about getting hurt. When educators put “cushions under the bar” by creating a safe learning environment, all students are more likely to keep trying to reach it and will do so until they do.”

That may not sound like “grit” to some though.  An article by Jordan Shapiro suggests that “grit” may just be another buzzword in education.  He references the work of Avi Kaplan, teacher and researcher, and states,

“Instead of celebrating the Grit, value the ability to figure out what to do after each failure.”

The Learning Partnership post also referred to the importance of resilience and emotional intelligence,

It’s becoming clear that resilience – the ability to bounce back from adversity or defeat and keep on going no matter what – and emotional intelligence (EQ) – the ability to identify, use, understand, and manage emotions in positive ways to communicate effectively, empathize with others, overcome challenges, and defuse conflict — are greater skills to possess in today’s rough and tumble world.

Can we find agreement on how to get there…. ?

Tracy Bachellier (@bachtrac) recently wrote about “resilience builders” on her blog.  She presents much to ponder regarding a focus on strengths as the way to support resilience.

Are strengths also a cushion?

I have also been hearing references to “iteration” as being a better focus.  I found this meaning for an education context via Wikipedia, with the source and resource noted there,

This idea is found in the old adage, “Practice makes perfect.” In particular, “iterative” is defined as the “process of learning and development that involves cyclical inquiry, enabling multiple opportunities for people to revisit ideas and critically reflect on their implication.

Are multiple opportunities a cushion?  What are the “just right” cushions for each learner?

Without more extended and shared dialogue on such complexities of supporting learners, I am not certain that the call for more competition (win/lose) or “failure” will prove to support student learning, resilience, or the “soft” skills needed for our world ahead.  Are we getting closer to understanding what will?