Process Over Outcome
I had a conversation with a student recently in which he identified a key turning point in my class. He said he had prepared really hard for the first time for a particular tournament a couple of years ago. He had hoped that he would place well, and it turned out that he didn’t place at all. He felt particularly discouraged and then.... it turned out that this moment of failure provided serious opportunities for reflection and internal change. The disappointing moment became important to him. Important enough that he remembered it and drew meaning from it years later.
I remember another conversation from a few years ago in which a student laid out for me how he saw his evolution as a student in my class. He said something like- “At first failure was something that I didn’t like. Then I started to see it as something good. Then I started to see it as something that I wanted.”
Sometimes, as a teacher, you want to be able to copy and then surgically implant the lessons learned by some students into the rest of your students. It would be so great if every student could start out just knowing how to leverage failures into character and academic growth. They would get discouraged less easily, endure much more difficult tasks, take on bigger challenges, resent their teachers and classes less, take responsibility more easily, and generally enjoy a much more rich and fulfilling education right from the start. Unfortunately the “copy and pasting of lessons learned through robust personal experience” technology doesn’t exist. It turns out that students have to learn those sorts of lessons the hard way, just like everyone else.
To the purpose of understanding how students do learn to use “failure,” so called, as a method of growth, let me ask a question. What happened inside of these and other students that enables that key practice? The answer is one of the core values of the Wasatch Independent Debate League and now the Independent Education Program: Process Over Outcome.
This means that students come to value a process of becoming someone they wish to be more highly than the specific outcomes that that process produces along the way. Central to that mindset is students having a strong idea of what they think it means to be successful. To give you an idea of what I’m talking about consider the following t-chart.
Process of Becoming
Taking on Challenges and Risks
Treating Others as Though They Have Value
Treating Oneself the Same Way
Desire to Learn From Life
Recognition from Teachers
Awards or Advancements
On the left are attributes, choices, and elements of character that are part of that process of becoming. They are the sort of attributes, choices, and elements of character that a teacher hopes their student will think of as success. On the right are the sort of things that (in my experience) students seem to define as success as a sort of preset. Can you see why failure would seem like a non-option for students who believe that the most meaningful definitions of success are specific outcomes they achieve? If the most meaningful measure of success is rankings and recognition, then failure of almost any sort is failure of the truest sort.
On the other hand, can you see that the more that students see the most significant definitions of success in the left column, the more that they would see failure as a viable method of growth? Or in the words of my student, not just something good, but something desirable. From this framework, “failure”, so called, isn’t only acceptable but often an essential part of success. Hopefully you can see the power of helping students become invested in the process of becoming more than the specific outcomes that process produces along the way.
It is the sort of mindset that is demonstrated by one of my most successful students, James McKenzie. James started my class young and was obviously very intelligent. But he really, really struggled to speak well. It was difficult for him to put together really coherent sentences on the spot and his delivery was stilted and sometimes difficult to comprehend. I remember that the first time I heard him give a speech, it was so muddled that I literally didn’t really understand what it was about. I believe it had something to do with making money off of a pumpkin patch, but that’s about what I got out of it.
For the first couple of years in the program, James was consistently at or near the bottom of tournament rankings, and yet he happily plugged along. He seemed to enjoy the intellectual challenge of the class. He was willing to try whatever I asked him to do. He did his homework, he attended tournaments, and he was thoroughly engaged in the process of becoming. Most of all, he appeared to think little enough about his tournament rankings to not become severely discouraged or to think poorly of himself.
I think it was in his third year that his mom approached me outside of class one day. She told me that she was concerned that he had put in all this work, but was still not placing in tournaments. What she didn’t know was that James had actually been working his way up the tournament rankings very slowly. He just wasn’t in the top half yet, so his name wasn’t getting announced yet. I assured her that he was doing everything right, that I was pleased with his growth, and that his effort was paying off. I’m not sure how satisfactory that was for her in the moment, but it was all very true. It was incredibly satisfactory to me when he started placing, then started placing well, then started placing consistently in the top tier of competitors. He became an excellent speaker and debater. He became one of the best teacher assistants I’ve ever had. Overall, he was among the most successful students I’ve had by traditional measures. But that isn’t really the point. At this point who cares about his tournament rankings? I don’t particularly, and I doubt he does either. And I am very glad that he learned the critical thinking, the research, and the verbal communication skills my class has to offer. They will serve him very well for the rest of his life. But the biggest success I see in James is who he became. He became someone that could take on difficult challenges without giving up or getting overly discouraged. He became someone who knew how to work hard, take feedback, accept responsibility for himself, and treat himself and others as valuable people worthy of respect. And he gets to keep all of that for the rest of his life. His medals do nothing for him moving forward. The skills he gained will be powerful, but won’t apply equally in every circumstance. Who he became will significantly impact all aspects of his life.
Would you be surprised to hear that James is now headed to Notre Dame for his Ph.D. in Physics? I certainly wasn’t.
James is an inspiration to me, but I’ve had the pleasure to know so many students like James. I could tell so many more stories of students and who they became. I hope that I’ve even had a hand in helping these students by helping them come to value the process of becoming more than the outcomes that process produces along the way.
In my classroom, promoting this perspective starts on day one and is an essential part of the curriculum all along the way. One of the questions that I ask my students most is “What do you count as success?” It takes time for students to develop their own philosophy on that question, but given enough opportunities to consider what they really find meaningful in education, they can begin to incorporate the idea that outcomes in the moment aren’t who they are, it is what they did.
If you teach in the homeschooling community, I would encourage you to ask where in your curriculum you can ask students what they find most meaningful as success in education and talk to them about what you find most meaningful as success in education.