THE TRANSFORMATIVE MAGIC OF REDEFINING SUCCESS
Last week, students in my graduate Pro-Seminar on Innovation course were asked to respond to the following question: Do you see more “success” in students who tend to be impervious to perceived failure?
At first, the answer to the above question seems obvious -- students who are less reactive in the face of failure tend to be more successful than those who become unsettled when the result of their efforts differs from their expectations. However, there is one caveat: we must first define success in this particular context. When we insist that students are “more successful,” what evaluative criteria are we applying?
Undoubtedly, students who fail at a task cannot be said to have succeeded at completing that particular task. However, success in the classroom is not limited to merely mastering the course content. Students who acquire certain soft skills -- such as perseverance, self-confidence, flexibility, emotional awareness, self-motivation, and self-management, just to name a few -- could be said to have succeeded at learning. In Essential Questions, Wiggins and McTighe write, “that education should strive to develop and deepen students’ understanding of important ideas and processes so that they can transfer their learning within and outside school” (Wiggins & McTighe, 2013, pg. 4). Success in learning, according to Wiggins and McTighe, is the students’ ability to apply the skills and knowledge acquired in the classroom to other areas of their education and their lives. We must conclude, then, that transfer and not content mastery is the true goal of education.
Success in learning, according to Wiggins and McTighe, is the students’ ability to apply the skills and knowledge acquired in the classroom to other areas of their education and their lives.
Wiggins and McTighe frequently use sports metaphors in their lectures, and the connection between competitive sports and the transferable psychosocial skills that students acquire in the classroom is evident. Most competitive athletes understand that success is not defined by the immediate outcome of the game. “You win or you learn,” writes Katrin Davidsdottir in Dottir, the memoir of her journey to winning the CrossFit championship two years in a row. This has been true in my experience as well. I recently started coaching my daughters in preparation for the 2021 Rhythmic Gymnastics National Championship. The pathway to qualifying for the national competition is through participation in several invitational, state, and regional meets. While it is certainly our hope to win at each of these competitions, from the outset, I defined success for my girls as “improving on your previous performance,” “finishing your routine even after you have dropped your apparatus,” and “competing with a positive attitude.” This was a stark change from their previous experience because, at their old club, success was evaluated only by the score that a gymnast received for her routine. I quickly noticed that, when my daughters began to view success through a different frame, their attitudes during practice, their performance at competitions, as well as their reactions to the scores and places that they receive have changed dramatically. They view the outcome of each competition as a lesson on the path to achieving their ultimate goal. However, I cannot say that they became impervious to failure. Rather, what they previously perceived as failure was redefined along with the meaning of success.
Therefore, we can see that, when the meaning of success is redefined, the meaning of failure is redefined as well. And, when failure is, by extension, reframed as a lesson or a learning experience, the unexpected outcome does not have the same effect as when students are convinced that their result does, in fact, constitute failure.
Therefore, we can see that, when the meaning of success is redefined, the meaning of failure is redefined as well.
Therefore, while one could argue that students who are impervious to perceived failure are more successful in the classroom, that would not be an entirely accurate conclusion. Developing an attitude of indifference towards failure is difficult and requires much effort to sustain. On the other hand, redefining the conventional view of success from the outset in such a way as to focus on the learning process allows students to become more open to unexpected outcomes, to be more willing to take creative risks, and, as a result, to be more successful in learning.
Davíðsdóttir, K. (2020). Dottir: my journey to becoming a two-time crossfit games champion. Griffin.
McTighe, J., & Wiggins, G. P. (2013). Essential questions: opening doors to student understanding. ASCD.