Just yesterday I read a report about college students being more anxious than ever. Turning to mental health services for issues that in the past were considered too minor to require outside assistance. But today’s college students have been raised in bubbles. They have no idea how to take care of themselves. To handle problems when they arise. To become strong, independent adults.
All you have to do is watch HGTV’s House Hunters to get an idea of what I’m talking about. Practically every parent searching for a new place to live says, “I worry about having stairs in the house because they’re dangerous for the kids.” They also look at fenced-in yards from the vantage of the kitchen window and sigh in relief because they’ll be able to observe their children at play while cooking. And they demand an open floor plan, not because they like to be able to entertain guests while prepping food but because they’ll always be able to see their kids in the family room.
What the heck? Surely through the ages children have been raised in homes with staircases and have survived. We might have a much smaller world population otherwise. Surely many of us remember playing, not just in the family room but in any darn room we chose, including the basement. Playing, not just in fenced-in yards but in entire neighborhoods.
To say we’ve become risk-aversive where today’s children are concerned is a laughable understatement. And it’s not just parents (who, arguably, are the easiest of groups to frighten). Teachers and school administrators, perhaps in reaction to parents’ concerns and certainly in reaction to the fear of litigation, are showing the same symptoms. They’re removing monkey bars and swing sets from school playgrounds. They’re outlawing tag, cartwheels, and sometimes even running – and, oh yes, recess.
And what is all this risk prevention getting us? According to a number of experts, today’s kids are dependent, risk-aversive, psychologically fragile, and riddled with anxiety. Which, of course, is why I’ll likely come across many more reports like the one I read yesterday.
In “How the Fear of Being Wrong Limits Students and Teachers,” on Studentcentricity, I talked with Ainissa Ramirez, Peter DeWitt, and Jill Berkowicz about how risk aversion has translated to the classroom. You can listen to it here. And below are their final thoughts.
The biggest thing we have to remember is that we learn a lot from failure, and it seems that we want to protect children from the very thing that offers us incredible lessons. Every student will fail at something and it is through that that we learn resilience. There are many benefits to failure.
A culture that supports risk taking must be led by the leader. Teachers must experience risk taking in a safe environment in order to ask students to do the same. But remember, grades and awards make it hard. If we assess and grade each learning step...and if we award those who are successful...little motivation is engendered. Winning and losing, A's and F's all have potential to prevent risk taking. Experience will help teachers know how to proceed. Courage, experience, and open hearted experimentation.
One cure for the fear of failure is to rebrand it. As I say in my book Save Our Science, "Scientists fail all the time. We just brand it differently. We call it data." If you learn something from the experience, then you did not fail. One antidote for this fear is to form Failure Clubs. In them, students report out how things went wrong and then, more importantly, what they learned from it. This way children realize that failure is part of learning. We often have to fail our way to the answer.
STEM education is a key way to give our children more opportunities to build a relationship with failure, because in STEM failure is a fact of life: things break; a beaker tips over; a machine won’t work. STEM provides plenty of opportunities to learn persistence and resilience and can instill new habits, which can have life long benefits. So, let’s teach our children to go out there and fail.
Note: Parts of this post were excerpted from my new book, What If Everybody Understood Child Development?