Each year in February my students encounter an obstacle in their path. They are required to memorize a piece of music and perform it in front of their peers and me. This is a big challenge, as you can imagine, especially because I give them a difficult piece of music.
Most students fail on the first attempt.
Students have three chances to pass the test. Those who do pass on the first try deserve high praise for their hard work, but it's those who don't pass on the first try who stand to learn the most from the experience.
Those who fail the first time are at a turning point: work harder or give up. Sadly, a few students come back the following week just as unprepared as they were the first time. Most, however, come back the second time well prepared and positively beam with pride when I tell them they passed.
This test allows me to measure the students' readiness for the St. Patrick's Day parade in San Francisco where we perform without sheet music. It’s a competition, and we try to do our best as we represent Catholic schools in the community.
But deeper down, beyond passing a test, the experience teaches them something very important about themselves. When students hear that they haven't passed, the look on their faces is often heartrending. Sometimes a few quiet tears are shed in class, and from parents I've heard that some kids feel devastated.
"Wait a minute! You mean, I didn't pass? You mean that I failed? That must mean that I’m not good enough." So one might imagine the inner dialogue of a child who has not passed.
Thomas J. Watson, the force behind the rise of IBM, knew a thing or two about failure and success. He said something on the subject so well put that it instantly engraved itself in my memory the first time I read it.
"If you want to increase your success rate, double your failure rate."
Failure and success go hand in hand. Those who fear failure and shy away from challenges also cut themselves off from success. Failure is an unavoidable part of reaching for success.
For many kids, especially those accustomed to gliding along with good grades in school, the parade memorization test is a turning point. For some, it is the first thing they have tried to do and failed. Sure they may have felt stressed and upset.
Normal stress. But that’s not a bad thing. On the contrary, brief periods of normal stress–such as the upset caused by not passing a test on the first try–are not harmful. In fact, they are essential to a child’s psychological growth. Learning how to bounce back from a disappointment is part of being mentally healthy. That’s an important lesson to keep in mind in our era of overprotective parenting.
One mother whose child did not pass the first time emailed me to say that her daughter wanted to quit the class when she learned she didn't pass. "[My daughter] really struggled with [the assignment], but we broke the music into sections which I think made her realize it wasn’t as daunting as it seemed. This was the first thing she ever failed!"
Did she pass on the second attempt? Did she learn something very important about life? I say yes to both questions.