The other day when my daughter got a small plastic bead up her nose I was reminded that real learning hurts. I had told her before about these kids I knew growing up who got pussy willows stuck up their noses. She looked up at me in disbelief and said “Mommmmmmy. I know you are kidding.” After convincing her of my friends’ trials with those soft fluffy things, I gave her a stern warning. Don’t stick stuff up your nose. The thing is, kids don’t quite get warnings, and neither do adults for that matter. For some reason we don’t learn until the consequences of our actions hurt.
I can think of so many times that I myself have had to learn lessons through pain. Burners on stoves are really hot. My mother warned me that snowy evening “Be careful, don’t put your hand up here. The burner is hot.” For some reason this warning made me want to touch it even more. I still remember that first burn. Luckily there was snow on the ground so I ran outside and buried my hand in it.
Or that time in college when the power went out while I was typing up a take home final. Eight pages gone. Blip. I hadn’t saved my paper, and in those days, nothing saved automatically. I tell my students now to “Save often and save freely.” You never know when electronics will let you down. But frequently they tell me… My paper is gone, I saved it, but something happened….the network crashed and I lost everything…the list goes on.
Then there were those times when I got in trouble with my parents. The most painful phrase in the English language: “I’m disappointed in you.” My father rarely used this phrase, but when he did, it would crush me. It was the worst punishment. Knowing that I had let my father down was the most painful of lessons. What ever I had done wrong, I certainly did not do that again.
It is hard though to watch my child or my students learn the same painful life lessons. You yell out your warning to them, but for some reason the warning makes them curious, and they do the dangerous thing anyway. Or they hear the warning and dismiss it thinking “that won’t happen to me.” And when they sit there in the pain of the consequence they are mad at you for not being more forceful. Why didn’t I tell them a 4th time to email themselves their work? Why didn’t I remind them one more time that the due date was today? Why didn’t I explain more thoroughly that they would fail if they didn’t do X, Y, or Z? Why didn’t I tell them to tattoo the syllabus on their body so that they wouldn’t lose it? Why didn’t I MAKE them do IT?
But it only takes once to learn the painful life lessons. Whether it be physical pain, emotional pain, or the pain of failure, most of us don’t do that thing that caused us so much distress again. When the consequence hurts, we learn.
Yet things can sometimes get in the way of this learning process. When the pain of the consequence is deflected by a parent, when we feel we need to rescue the kids before the pain comes, no learning will take place. As a teacher I have seen this way too many times. A parent swoops in to say “you have to change the grade, give my child another chance, my child was too tired to complete the work.” Or when an administrator rescues the child from the consequence or gives no consequences at all.
I am not advocating for corporal punishment. I never learned anything by being threatened with a paddle or a wooden spoon. What I’m advocating for is a learning environment where students are allowed to make choices, the choice to succeed, but also the choice to fail and learn from that failure. We need to be fair and consistent with our young ladies and gentlemen. Clearly state our rules, objectives, and consequences. Follow through, hold our ground. Hold on to the positive relationships we have with our students and know that being a support to our students in their failure is sometimes more productive to the child than giving them a second, third, or fourth chance.
I once had a student named Matt who frequently got in trouble at school because of his smarts. He hacked into the school’s computer system and changed grades for himself and other students. He got suspended. While he was on his week of suspension he had forgotten to complete a project that was due for me. I expected it on his return. I had a “no late work” policy. He received a zero. The mom called me in a panic. She explained how hard Matt had worked while he was at home, she outlined the punishment and chores he was given, she told me all about his tragic life story, and she begged “Please let him turn it in. If he gets a C in your class he’ll never make it into dental school.”
I held my ground and explained to Matt and his mother that he could make up these points by doing well on the rest of the work that year. The mom continued to fight. She pulled in the principal. The principal started quoting state laws to me on the rights of students who are suspended. I interpreted them as stating I was in the right and he was under the impression I was in the wrong. I held my ground.
Matt didn’t get a C. He got an A. He had more points than any other kid in the class. He came in for extra help. He studied hard for every test. And when given the chance to do enrichment activities, he did every single one.
I don’t know if Matt ever went to dental school, but I know he learned a lot in my class that year. He didn’t just learn about History and Geography, he learned about how to succeed in spite of his failure. He learned that sometimes you have to feel the pain in order to learn.
Do you agree that learning has to hurt? What is your favorite student story of surviving failure? Or do you have a moment in your own life that taught you a painful life lesson?