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The Table Video

Jason Baehr& Janelle Aijian

Fighting the Fear of Failure: Engineering Success for Every Student

Professor of Philosophy, Loyola Marymount University
Assistant Professor, Torrey Honors Institute, Biola University
July 3, 2015

A great challenge to teaching is helping every student, not just the ones with natural intelligence, good test-taking abilities, or quick learning skills. Jason Baehr asks how we can care and educate the students who take longer, experience more challenges, and have a fear of failure.


So, even in our best moments when we’ve got the best texts, and we’re performing well in our capacity as teachers. We’re using good methods, we’re modeling good thinking, at least if your experience is anything like mine, there are still going to be a few students, right? Whose looks on their faces suggest that they’re not on board. They’re not buying it.

And one of the things, and that group can be larger or smaller, but one of the things that I’m really interested in is, what do we do about them, right? So when some of the standard methods for fostering intellectual virtues aren’t working right, right? What if anything can we do to get some of those other students on board?

Well, I think we can engineer successes for them. Because we enjoy things that we succeed at. We liked those moments of triumph. If a student is tuned out and disgusted with what’s going on in the class, one way to do it is to, to try to marginalize the really active, smart kids. [laughs] For a moment. And concentrate on the one who’s slow. And then make it maybe simple enough so that he or she actually can have a success.

I like that and I think one point that illustrates is how it’s worth asking of ourselves, when we encounter students like that, what’s getting in the way? Because like you were saying, the goods that we’re trying to, we’re inviting them to pursue and enjoy are genuine goods. And so something’s gotten in the way. And so asking what are the obstacles? What messages are they telling themselves? That are getting in the way of their engagement.

And I think often it will be something like well, I’m just not, I can’t do it, I’m not competent, right? Or I’m too afraid to fail, right? So asking what are those messages and then trying to create opportunities in the classroom to address those, whether engineering for success or in the case of fear of failure, right? Being a little bit, having a classroom wide discussion about, look, we’re all afraid of failure, right? And yet that kind of fear can be paralyzing.

And if it takes over, you’re never going to engage. And if you don’t engage, you’ll never really going to grow. That seems like one really helpful way to think about it. I also think too that the kind of relationships that we have with students. They need to know that our classrooms are safe and respectful places, right? And it’s fascinating to me why that’s the case. And I think at least part of why it’s the case is that character change is profoundly personal, right?

By trying to help them grow in these qualities, we’re asking them to internalize new values and practices and habits. That’s extremely personal. And I think, just as kind of a matter of common sense, we aren’t generally open to deep personal change in relationships or environments that feel unsafe or hostile. So being able to show students that, look, this isn’t a classroom where you gonna get personally attacked. It’s a classroom that I think classroom that values intellectual humility.

Talking about placing values on certain things in the classroom. Like elevating the value of intellectual humility. Where it’s as good or better to explain what you don’t know or what you’re struggling with, or to try to overcome something that you’re struggling with. Where that’s rewarded just as much if not more than getting the right answer and getting it as fast as you can.

Yeah, I think there’s a profound good in the kind of relationship between a student and a teacher. Where the student isn’t motivated so much by grades anymore as they are by wanting to, the negative way to put it is wanting to be sort of approved of by their teacher.

But it’s actually wanting to have a relationship of respect with someone if that’s an opportunity. I respect this person, and I know that if I do my best, they will respect me too. That’s so much better as a motivator than any kind of, sort of selfish, I need to get an A in this so I can go to med school kind of mentality.

And wrapped up in that too I think is often the experience of admiration and emulation, right? In the same way that I want to have a mutually respectful relationship with this person where we’re together, we’re pursuing something that’s good. I also, I want to be like that person. I want think like that person. I want to have the loves that person has. That’s attractive.