01 October 2013

For success failure must be an option

I have been taken by two potentially contrasting bits of potted wisdom recently.

John Bertrand, the skipper of Australia II who first won the America's Cup from the USA for Australia 30 years ago in 1983, coming from 1/3 down to win 4/3,  has been interviewed multiple times recently as the anniversary is marked. It has fortuitously coincided with the Oracle Team USA remarkable defense last week in San Francisco of the current America's Cup, 9/8 against Team New Zealand, after coming back from being 1/8 down.

One of the observations Bertrand made was that in high pressure, high stakes situations, such as coming from behind to win a regatta when a single loss means failure, is to remove all thought and speculation on the consequences of defeat or victory in any race, and focus wholly on the task at hand, the process required to win. Seems like good advice to me and James Spithall who skippered Team USA and his crew must have taken it to heart.

By way of superficial contrast, I read a bit of home spun wisdom today, after being referred there from Instapundit via TaxProfBlog. The prof, Paul Caron of the Pepperdine University Law School, had a blog post about The Saturday Essay in the Wall Street Journal on 27 September called "Why tough teachers get good results" by Joanne Lipman. She writes that:

...our orchestra conductor, a fierce Ukrainian immigrant named Jerry Kupchynsky, and when someone played out of tune, he would stop the entire group to yell, "Who eez deaf in first violins!?" He made us rehearse until our fingers almost bled. He corrected our wayward hands and arms by poking at us with a pencil.
Today, he'd be fired. But when he died a few years ago, he was celebrated: Forty years' worth of former students and colleagues flew back to my New Jersey hometown from every corner of the country, old instruments in tow, to play a concert in his memory. I was among them, toting my long-neglected viola. When the curtain rose on our concert that day, we had formed a symphony orchestra the size of the New York Philharmonic.
 I was stunned by the outpouring for the gruff old teacher we knew as Mr. K. But I was equally struck by the success of his former students ...

Many of us also had a Mr K or two in our own educational journey, who we revere for what they gave to us in understanding the lasing value of application and discipline. Her thesis here is that it is the lack of such teachers today that is seeing America falling behind in its educational standards. She goes on to lay out a new manifesto for optimising educational outcomes. She lays down an 8 point plan as follows:

  1. A little pain is good for you
  2. Drill, baby, drill
  3. Failure is an option
  4. Strict is better than nice
  5. Creativity can be learned
  6. Grit trumps talent
  7. Praise makes you weak…
  8. …while stress makes you strong.

And Ms Lipman goes on to say:

... individually, these are forbidding precepts: cold, unyielding, and kind of scary.

But collectively, they convey something very different: confidence. At their core is the belief, the faith really, in students' ability to do better. There is something to be said about a teacher who is demanding and tough not because he thinks students will never learn but because he is so absolutely certain that they will.
         [my emphasis]

My opening contrast was between John Bertrand's observation that you need to put out of your mind the consequences of failure and concentrate on the process, if you are to succeed, with Mr K and Joanne Lipman's belief that it helps if you let students know that failure is an option.

These observations are readily reconcilable: you'll have the requisite desire to focus on the process necessary to win, if failure is the consequence of a lack of that focus.

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