Actor, Henry Winkler, grew up with learning challenges. He recently appeared on film giving some advice to his younger self. “No matter how hard it is for you to learn, no matter how difficult school is, it has nothing to do with how brilliant you are. You are not defined by your grades. You are defined by how great your thoughts are. You can do anything. You just find another path to do it.” He went on to say, “It’s okay, you don’t have to be so nervous because you can’t spell.” This valuable advice applies to each and every student, especially those studying science. Persistence is the key and king in the science realm.
We all have people we look up to for their knowledge, accomplishments, and character. But, how did our icons and mentors get to where they are? After all, no one is perfect. Successful professionals in every field, especially science, achieved success through hard work and a whole lot of persistence.
Recognizing that science heroes like Albert Einstein experienced a great deal of failure along the way can help students pick themselves back up after a setback and try, try again. Recent studies have demonstrated how valuable this message is to convey to young struggling students. One 2016 study conducted by the cognitive-studies researcher Xiaodon Lin-Siegler of Columbia University’s Teacher College found that students’ science grades showed significant improvement after being taught about the intellectual struggles of scientists like Einstein and Marie Curie. The students who were only taught about the scientists’ achievements actually experienced a decline in their grades. These findings were substantial enough that in mid-April, 2018, announced the creation of the Interdisciplinary Education for Persistence and Innovation Center.
There is purpose and value in the attempt and failure process, so long as young scientists and explorers are encouraged to analyze the attempts and learn from them. “Failure needs to give people a chance to regroup and rewind the clock,” Lin-Siegler explained. Her main goal, she said, is to help students realize that failure is a normal part of the process of learning. This process also models the scientific method.
A helpful tip when teaching science to your students is to focus on the idea that failure isn’t bad. Perseverance and persistence are what matter. Talk about the idea that success isn’t necessarily the result of aptitude, but more closely related to the amount of elbow grease applied. Some learners, like Winkler, are going to have to come at learning from different angles and it might take more attempts for some than others. But, success is there for the taking with the right amount of grit and perseverance.
Teach students that brilliant scientists worked very hard. They didn’t rely on innate talent and aptitude. It’s easy to look at an accomplished scientist and assume they were just born smart and success was inevitable. However, if you take the time to talk to those very same scientist you would learn a whole new story, one that involves a lot of hard work.
In the story The Little Engine That Could, the train says, “I think I can. I think I can.” This phrase is repeated until the train finally makes it to the top of the hill. If each of those utterances of “I think I can” were to represent an attempt with the possibility of failure, even a failure would be another inch closer to your goal. This example is nearer to the reality of what it takes to succeed — many attempts, many failures, and enough perseverance to reach the crest of the hill. But, don’t be surprised if the train backslides at times. That, too, can happen. With each failure comes another opportunity to try.