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Wednesday, April 9, 2014

How To Motivate in the Face of Failure: Part 2

This post is the continuation of the post HERE.

Strategy 2: Derive Learning from the Failure

Few people realize this but it is a natural response to feel excited when you learn something new. Some adults, with bad experiences learning in school, may tell me that they don’t like learning. Yet, these are the same adults who tell me that they are quite excited about their new job because they get to do new things. New things to do, bring new learning, no? It’s nice to learn something new. 

Professor Don Vandewalle examined the effects of having a learning goal orientation on motivation. He found that students with a learning goal orientation redoubled their efforts to perform after being given negative feedback. In contrast, students who had a proving goal orientation tried hard before they were given negative feedback. However, they stopped trying after being given negative feedback. The negative feedback had served to prove to them that they were simply not up to par, and so it was no point trying. The worst off, however, were students with avoiding goal orientation. These students were so afraid of failing that they used half their brains to worry about how to avoid failure and whether they can avoid failure. They only had half their brains left to learn with. Necessarily, these students were so focused on failure that their failure came to pass.

In my Dr Pet’s English Enrichment Centre, a child came one day who had such a strong avoiding goal orientation that he stared at an English comprehension question for five minutes and then began to cry. Since Jerry was busy feeling distraught, he could not follow my attempts to guide him through to an answer. Predictably, Jerry failed to find the answer to the comprehension question despite my attempts to guide him.

In the subsequent weeks, I began class with Jerry by announcing that students must not fear failure. I explained that failure was a natural part of learning. If children could do everything perfectly well then it meant that they already knew everything, and therefore, there was no need to learn. I emphasized that I expected the children to learn from their failures. They were to squeeze every ounce of learning they could from every failure experience. Then, every time they made mistakes, I praised them for the courage in the face of failure. Then asked them “What did you learn?” They were all more than happy to share with me their learning points.

At the end of every class, I made Jerry grade himself on his own fear of making mistakes. On the first week, he graded himself 2 upon 5. He was thus made aware that he was afraid of failing at things. I smiled at him kindly and said “Well… at least it is not 0 upon 5.” On the second week, he graded himself 3 upon 5. One day, I warned him before returning a marked composition to him. I said “You know you failed right? You know that some of my comments may make you feel sad, right?”

Jerry’s mother and I jubilated when he replied, “Yes, Dr Pet. Everyone fails sometimes. I think I can learn a lot from your comments inside my composition.” The composition he passed up the week after, addressed most of the issues I had identified in his failed composition. He had taken most of the negative feedback, converted it into positive learning and felt good about having learnt something. 

Learning something new infuses the human psyche with positive energy. There’s that little bit of thrill. When Archimedes figured out the Archimedes Principle, he was so happy, he jumped out of his bath tub and ran naked down the street. When I learnt that I had failed to make a good brioche because I had added butter at the wrong time, I was so excited I could not wait to get started on a new brioche.

All it takes is a simple mental paradigm shift. This is not a failure. It is a new discovery. The moment the psyche envisions these new discoveries, a phoenix rises from the ashes of failure and hope is reborn. Failure can be motivating. We need to only touch it with the wand of learning goal orientation, and the substance of failure changes from dirty stress to clean motivational energy.

Our children’s attitude to failure will define their success in life. Life spares no man failure. Not even the most intelligent person is exempt from failure. In turn, parents define their children’s attitude to failure. Parents who treat every failure as a judgment of ability will also teach their children that attitude. Parents who receive failing marks and sit down to discuss action plan and learning points, will also teach their children problem-focused coping and inculcate a strong learning goal orientation.

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