Debate Magazine

What Happens When We Give Ourselves Permission to Fail (from the Archives)

By Stevemiranda

I recently came across some research by Heidi Grant Halvorson, author of Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals. Her findings illuminate a surprising insight: when we give ourselves permission to fail, we make fewer mistakes. She writes,

“Just to give you an example, in one study I conducted a few years ago with my graduate student, Laura Gelety, we found that people who were trying to be good (i.e., those who were trying to show how smart they were) performed very poorly on a test of problem-solving when we made the test more difficult (either by interrupting them frequently while they were working, or by throwing in a few additional unsolvable problems).

“The amazing thing was, the people who were trying to get better (i.e., those who saw the test as an opportunity to learn a new problem-solving skill) were completely unaffected by any of our dirty tricks. No matter how hard we made it for them, students focused on getting better stayed motivated and did well.”

The first thing we have to do in order to restructure our schools—it’s more complicated than just this, but I’m saying the first thing we have to do—is to eliminate grades. We need to recognize that learning is an infinite process, not a product summarized by a numeral that ends after an arbitrary amount of time.

* * *

I found out today that the traditional school where I used work has changed its grading policy. In the past, students could earn letter grades A, B, C, D, or E. One “problem” with this policy was that sometimes more than 40 students—more than 10 percent of the graduating class—would complete high school with a perfect 4.0 GPA.

The new policy features “plus” and “minus” grades, which means that students who earn a 92 percent in a class will receive an A-minus, and will no longer have a shot at being valedictorian.

I suspect the outcome of this will be:

  • an increase in stress levels among the highest achieving students
  • an increase in cheating among the highest achieving students
  • zero change in the quality of students’ education

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