I had a high school teacher, Mr. DeAngelo, who taught writing in the school. He gave us assignments to write a page of prose on some topic of our own choosing. As I recall, he graded that assignment with heavy commentary on syntax and style. (At least, I remember my pages came back heavily marked up!) He then asked us to rewrite the page down to half a page, without losing any of the information in the rewrite. More feedback and critique. The next assignment was to do the same in a quarter of a page. I hated those assignments at the time; I performed horribly. I received low grades and tons of criticism. But the lessons I learned stayed with me (and I subjected graduate students to the same regimen decades later).
He was forcing us to go way out of our comfort zone. We were teaching ourselves through deep text analysis and introspection to identify the critical information needed to convey our thoughts. Each word became a precious resource. We were becoming better writers, but he wasn’t lecturing on how to be a better writer. We were also failing at a high frequency. He took me right up to the point of breakdown, but, then, he picked me up. He taught me that I could recover from failure. Indeed, in the nomenclature of today, he was teaching us how to “fail fast” and repair.
I think these lessons are related to building resilience, an attribute that we want our graduates to obtain through their programs. We want to build students who take risks, without fear of failure, because such risk-taking (wisely governed) produces stronger outcomes. Self-censoring ambition because of fear of failure is the evil we’re trying to avoid.
Discovering that there’s life after failure doesn’t seem to be well-learned by talking about it. Experience seems to be the best teacher on this lesson. So, the puzzle for a university is how to build into a curriculum (whether undergraduate or graduate) experiences that lead to a reduction of fear of failure. We’ve all read of curricular features that have been tried–pass/fail options, ungraded courses, and deliberate grading strategies that are benchmarked to what should be known at the end of the course, not at the moment of the assignment.
The brilliance of Mr. DeAngelo for me was that I learned to give myself permission to fail the first time, because he also gave me skills to pick myself up after the failure.
We want our students to know the material of the course, but we also want them to apply the knowledge without the paralyzing limitations of fear of failure. The course should convey wisdom to discern the degree of risk and to understand what outcomes should be pursued. That knowledge, however, also should be acquired through steps that build resilience.
Resilience to failure and the grit to persevere, leading to judicious risk-taking to attain stronger outcomes–this should be a side benefit of Georgetown instruction. It would be fun to have faculty share stories about how they achieve this. I suspect we can all learn a lot through such a dialogue.