By:Robyn R. Jackson
After dinner, I was standing near the pool table talking to one of my uncles when one of my littlest cousins, aged 2, toddled by. We paused to comment on how cute he looked, stomach poked out, hands askew for balance, face smiling with the sheer joy of walking by himself. Then suddenly, he fell.
You could see the surprise on his face as he landed solidly on his bottom with a thud. He looked around bewildered as to how he had landed on the floor and then up at us, the nearest adults.
Instinctively, I lurched forward to pick him up and felt my uncle’s hand pull my arm back to stop me. My little cousin sat on the ground and looked up at us, his expression caught somewhere between surprise and a good cry. He watched our faces closely for signs as to how he should react.
“You’re okay,” my uncle said brightly as he smiled down at my cousin. “Come on,” he coaxed. “Get on up. You’re okay.”
My little cousin looked at my uncle for a moment and then turned and searched my face. Quickly, I smiled and nodded. “You’re okay,” I repeated.
He watched our faces for a few more seconds, then leaned forward and pushed himself to his feet. He wobbled for a few seconds and then put his hands out in front of him to gain his balanced. Once he did, he looked up at us and smiled.
“Yay!” we clapped. “You did it!” He giggled at our praise and then waddled off to the other side of the room.
“If you pick him up every time he falls,” my uncle commented, “He’ll never learn to get up on his own.”
The same can be said for our students. All too often, we bubble-wrap learning. Somehow, “all students can learn” got twisted into “no students should ever experience failure.” We try to control every part of the learning process and do not allow our students room to fall. And, even when they do, we rush in the pick them up without allowing them time to learn from their fall. We treat falling like it’s a bad thing rather than an inevitable part of learning.
Some of us err on the other side and do leave space for kids to fall but do nothing when they do. We say “If you want to fail, I am not going to stand in your way,” and leave it to them to figure out how to get back up — or not — on their own.
Both approaches hurt students. It is true we can’t just let students fail, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t allow them to fall once in a while. Experiencing some difficulty, some failure, falling every once in a while, is how we learn. The key is that when they do fall, we cannot leave them sitting on the ground and we can’t rush in to pick them back up. Instead, we offer them an encouraging smile and support students when they fall. We tell them that they’re okay. And we teach them how to get back up again. It’s the only way they’ll ever learn how to get up on their own.