the joys of failure

My 8-year old's "baseball" season began yesterday. Baseball is under scare quotes because this is what happens. It's coach pitch, which is fine since not many kids that age could get the ball over the plate. The batter gets as many pitches as he (yes, boys only) needs to make contact, sometimes as many as two dozen. It's unlikely that the fielders would register an out, but even if the batter is thrown out, he's allowed to stay on base. The inning ends when every player on the side has had an at-bat. When the final batter gets a hit, all the players left on base run home. The kids in the field barely even bother to field the ball. What would be the point?

Now I understand all the things people say about our culture being over-competitive and the ridiculous fights parents get into at their kids' sporting events. On the flipside, one can also read about the questionable value of over-praising our kids. When one kid takes 20 cuts at the ball to hit a dribbler down the third base line and another kid picks it up and either throws it five feet into the ground or in some random direction, why are we applauding their success?

Maybe this seems cruel, but I think that reaction is more telling of us than of our kids. Doesn't this whole thing seem a little out of whack? Presumably the goal here is to insulate our kids from the potential discouragement of failure by creating a situation where failure is impossible. Needless to say, where failure is impossible, success can only be an illusion. Besides, don't we only further stigmatize failure by placing so much emphasis on protecting our children from its clutches? After all the familiar adage about American sports is that the hardest thing to do is hit a baseball. Can't we just let it be difficult?

Of course we do the same thing in the classroom. Pedagogies, particularly for younger kids but even in college, speak of encouragement and opportunities for success. In turn we stigmatize getting things wrong, especially when we prepare students for high-stakes tests. Learning, it would seem, is all about getting the right answers.

I'm not saying we need to swing all the way in the other direction, whatever that would imply. But really we should be encouraging kids (and students) to take risks, to see genuine failure as an acceptable risk in nearly every situation in their daily lives. In my classroom experience, the unwillingness to take risks stands as a significant impediment to learning. And yes, I can create contexts where the consequences of failure are muted, and I often do that b/c I have found that it does convince students to be more experimental. But, again, you can't take a risk if there are no consequences.

And we should be clear that college students are forever taking risks… with sexual relations, drinking, drugs, and any number of other social choices. And they sometimes learn from those risks. The classroom ought to be a mechanism whereby the opportunities for learning from risks and failures (and successes) are enhanced. We ought to be able to say to those kids that striking out is an acceptable risk. It doesn't feel good. It isn't a desirable outcome. But if you can't accept the risk of striking out, you can never get a hit. Maybe 8 year-olds can't understand these risks, but watching my kids I think they are already making more sophisticated calculations about risk in their social interactions with friends. If games were once a form of ritualized warfare, today they are maybe ritualized social exchanges. The applied game theory and (dare I say) rhetorical choices of sports ought to prepare us for future risks.

But only if we are allowed to take them.

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