What Students Can Gain From Losing

14 May

“You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard ya hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.” Rocky Balboa

Teachers understand the importance of learning skills and character in supporting academic success. It’s  integrated into our daily activities and we’ve delivered “Virtues” programs for years. The connection between character and academic success is now being recognized outside the teaching profession.

In 2010 the Ontario government announced that all students would to be instructed and formally evaluated in six key learning skills:

          • Responsibility
          • Organization
          • Independent Work
          • Collaboration
          • Initiative
          • Self-Regulation

The front page of the Ontario Report Card is reserved for communicating Learning Skills progress. The message to parents and students is that learning skills must be developed before sustained academic progress is possible.

In September of 2012 Paul Tough published “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character” to widespread acclaim. People magazines said “Drop the flashcards—grit, character, and curiosity matter even more than cognitive skills”. Educators continued to discuss how to effectively teach grit and character skills.

Perseverance or “grit”as Tough calls it is the most important of these character skills. Grit is “perseverance in pursuit of a passion” as defined by Angela Duckworth, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania. Grit is what kicks in (or doesn’t) when students face an obstacle in learning or in life. When they don’t understand something do students  quit or do they keep going?

I point out to my students that everyone, no matter how intelligent, reaches a point where they don’t understand. Some reach this point sooner, others later, but it comes to us all. What determines our success is what we do when we reach that point. Students without grit give up.

But all students have grit, it just depends on the situation. Students who quit on math spend hours persevering on “Call of Duty”. The student who doesn’t “get it” will take thousands of failed shots in the gym in order to perfect their jump shot. Grit is dependent on engagement, passion. If students are engaged, if they care passionately, they’re more likely to show grit. Our task as educators is to make learning engaging while showing them how to apply the grit they already have to their academic learning.

Since May 1st the most engaging topic for many students in Southern Ontario has been The Toronto Maple Leafs return to the NHL playoffs. Each game is dissected in class with other students and teachers and of course it’s all over the media.

The Leafs game 7 overtime loss was  the major topic of conversation in class the morning after the night before, so we talked about it. In the discussion I said, to disbelieving Leaf fans, that the game 7 overtime loss was probably the best thing that could happen to The Leafs. After the boo-ing died down they asked me to explain.

Massive painful failure can be a tremendous gift. The Leafs showed, throughout the first round, that they persevere. They were underdogs in the series and battled back twice to tie the series. Even in game seven in Boston they were losing and fought back. There’s no quit in this team. They showed grit.

In the end they lost in the most painful way. Holding a 4-1 lead with 15 minutes to go the game was all but won. But they lost the game, and the series, in overtime. Crushing. None of the Leaf players will ever forget that feeling. I know, because I’ve had my own overtime losses. We all have.

After the pain subsides the memories of the loss can turn into a fire in your belly. As the players train for next season they’ll think about what happened, how much it hurt and it will drive them forward past their limits. They’ll vow to never let it happen again.

I encouraged my students to think like The Leafs. Failure is not the end, but a learning opportunity. It’s not a period, it’s a comma, waiting for you to finish the sentence. When my students aren’t being successful, just like the Leafs weren’t, they should also show grit and keep plugging away (I can hear Kessel saying “You just got to keep giving 110% out there”).

There’s a golden opportunity for The Toronto Maple Leafs, a move that will affect the lives of millions of students. The Maple Leafs should become “The Team That Never Quits”. They should reach out to schools and students using social media (YouTube, Skype) and make school visits. Players could share how it felt to fail and how important it is to persevere, to show grit and how they did it. There could be a blue and white poster in every classroom with the Leafs logo and the motto “Never, never,never, ever quit”. (I bet Fred Galang is already working on this :))

Helping students see the bridge between persevering in other areas of their lives and academically would be transformative. The way students are engaged with the club is a powerful tool. They’d also be reaching out to generations of new fans who’d proudly wear the blue & white because of it’s deeper meaning. Sounds like a win-win.

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