Facing the Dragons of Failure

How the best edtech products give kids the tools to beat them

by Beth Wesche

I remember the first time I really struggled in a class. I was in my first semester of high school, in Mr. Wolff’s Algebra class. I’d always been a high-achieving kid, and was one of the lucky ones for whom many subjects came easily. But after the introduction of some new algebra concepts that I didn’t immediately grasp, a low exam score became a fiery dragon that roared through my mind and shattered my confidence. I’d never really had to work for a grade before. Now I was facing tangible evidence that I’d fallen short. I had no idea how to cope with what I saw as a permanent mark of failure, and when my mother came to pick me up from school, I crumpled into the passenger seat and cried.

My mom, of course, had no idea what was wrong. After several tries, she got the news out of me. But even after hearing the source of my shame, she seemed remarkably unfazed. Did she not understand the gravity of my situation?

Apparently not.

“So, you didn’t do well on the exam?” No, obviously, I did not. “Did you understand the material?” No! Obviously not! “…Did you go to anyone for help?” Of course not. The only thing worse than struggling was admitting it.

And that, it turned out, was the problem. This was years before Carol Dweck would publish Mindset, but I’d inadvertently become a poster child for what she identified as “fixed mindset thinking.” I was so afraid of failing, it was preventing me from learning and growing, and causing me to dig an ever deeper hole by not admitting — even to myself — that I might need help. I’d forgotten how to see challenges as problems to be solved, or puzzles to be mulled over. Instead of struggling through difficulty, I was training myself to avoid it at all costs.

A recent deep dive into edtech and personalized learning got me thinking about that crippling fear of failure. One of the key selling points of personalized learning tools is that they allow each student to approach material at their own pace and in ways that helps them learn best. Many of these new tools help teachers identify where students are struggling. The best, though, also highlight where students are avoiding difficult concepts that would otherwise stretch them. They combat the kind of fixed mindset thinking I fell into by teaching students to look at difficult concepts not as permanent brands of failure, but as challenges to be overcome with energy and enthusiasm.

It took me until high school to confront my fear, because I’d been lucky (or unlucky) enough to avoid the tangible consequences of being challenged. Thankfully, my mother identified that fear for what it was and helped me transform the terrifying beast that was high school algebra into something that could be beaten with a little help, practice, and creative thinking. Today’s students don’t need to wait for a bad grade to force them to face their own dragons. The tools are now out there to guide them to the other side, right from the beginning.

Here are a couple of companies and tools we think are approaching challenge really well – check them out:

  1. Motion Math: these guys produce a suite of math learning apps that are firmly grounded in Dweck’s work on the growth mindset. Their single-player games not only identify where students are sticking to their comfort zone and encourage them to branch out, but also encourage and reward students who are challenging themselves even when they fail in the process. Cupcake, their latest offering, is a particular favorite among iFster’s kids.
  2. WriteLab: geared towards high-school and college students, this company’s writing feedback tool generates comments and suggestions on how to improve students’ writing between drafts. It aims to give students the tools to understand good writing techniques, but also the agency to own their work and incorporate suggestions as they see fit.
  3. Noticing Tools: this set of apps from the New York Hall of Science does away with the idea of success and failure entirely, helping kids master complex math and physics concepts by playing and experimenting with the world around them.