4 Reasons Why Every Educator Should Read ‘The Gift of Failure’

Why when it comes to parenting and educating that we all need take a deep breath, back-off, and chill out.

September 20, 2015

The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed by Jessica Lahey.

Published in August of 2015.

Full-disclosure: Jessica Lahey is married to my colleague Tim Lahey.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that The Gift of Failure is only a book for people with kids. This is a book that every educator should make time to read. In fact, it may be that those of use involved in postsecondary education need grapple with the ideas in this amazing book more than anyone else.

4 reasons why you should read The Gift of Failure:

1. The Gift of Failure is Beautifully Written, Well-Researched, Reasonable, Balanced, and Funny:

I read The Gift of Failure with my ears. Lahey narrates her audiobook, and she does so beautifully. Lahey could have a great future as an audiobook narrator. Fortunately, she was working with some great material.

The Gift of Failure manages to be both conversational and rigorous, intimate but never confessional. When Lahey talks about her own teaching and parenting challenges, it is always to help us understand the research on learning and child development. The stories that Lahey tells about her own experiences, and experiences that she has collected from friends and colleagues, are always stories in service of illustrating the academic and empirical research that ground her arguments.

2. The Need to Chill Out About Our Emerging Adults:

One of the main messages of The Gift of Failure is that when it comes to the future of our kids that all of us need to chill out.  We worry that our kids will not get into the right college. We worry about how we will pay for the college they attend. And we worry that after shelling out all that money for college that our kids will move home, with the best job they can find coming from the local Starbucks.  No wonder that our kids are so stressed out once they make it to our campuses.

Lahey recognizes the incredible stress that today’s young people have been exposed to about grades, admissions, and the difficulties of ever securing meaningful employment. All that stress can stand in the way of learning, the real reason that young people go to college in the first place. If college should be a time to explore new ideas and try on new ways of thinking, then we need to find a way to defuse the achievement mindset that landed so many of our students on campus.  Reading The Gift of Failure should help us understand the roots of the grade obsessed, and future-employment worried, college students of today.

3. Making Room for Failure:

The Gift of Failure is all about the journey to independent adulthood. Lahey builds a detailed argument for the benefit of autonomy parenting, an approach that is the opposite of over-parenting. The real goal of parenting, she argues, is not to maximize happiness in the moment - but to help kids develop the long-term tools and habits necessary for independent and productive lives.

How can we take those lessons into our postsecondary classrooms?  What can we do to think of time spent in college as preparation for independent adulthood? We need to think of the college years as safe places to get it wrong. Future success is based on one’s ability to identify long-term goals, and to persevere in the attainment of those goals through multiple setbacks, hardships, reversals and bad luck. Navigating failures and setbacks is a learned skill. Tenacity is a quality that can be developed and nurtured.  How can we design our courses, and the entire college experience, around promoting resilience, flexibility, and long-term thinking?

4.  The Grading Elephant In the Room:

Lahey doesn’t mince words about grading.  She says that stressing final grades, like emphasizing any extrinsic reward for learning, is a largely counterproductive. Lahey is mostly talking about the problems with grading in middle and high school. She could have been talking about college as well. The real issue is how to navigate a bad system, one in which everyone focuses on the final grade rather than learning.

The recommendation that Lahey makes is to shift the focus from grades to goals. Setting out the learning objectives and teaching goals of every class can go a long way ameliorate the destructive focus on summative assessments. Timely feedback, lots of opportunities for formative assessment (low-stakes quizzes along the way), and clear grading rubrics can also help reduce the focus on final grades.

Do I have any quibbles with The Gift of Failure? While Lahey mentions Judith Harris’ The Nurture Assumption, I think that she could have explored more the limits of even the best (or worst) parenting in determining future adult success. A more thorough discussion of the sociological and economic reasons behind the over-parenting epidemic would have also been appreciated.

These are minor objections to a marvelous book, a book that gets my highest recommendation.

What are you reading?


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Joshua Kim

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