The value of mistakes and failing

In the past, schools did everything to prevent students from making mistakes. Mistakes were considered bad. To get back tests and assignments filled with red marks was a sure sign of failure and incompetence. Hence students were programmed to do everything they could to avoid making mistakes, to the extent that they would cheat to get the right answers. Additionally, students memorized words, phrases, and sentences from textbooks in order to reproduce the exact same texts expected of them in the exam. Apart from leading to under-achievement, mistakes became another psychological weapon that terrorized students and their attitude toward learning, themselves, and the world around them.

According to the most popular lecturer at Harvard University Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar, we cannot learn and grow if we don’t make mistakes. He illustrated this in one of his “Happy” classes. In the lecture, he called out a volunteer who was asked to draw a circle as best as she could. The circle looked close-to-perfect. He then asked the same student to draw two more circles: one circle as she would have drawn it when she was three years old, and another one when she was one year old. You can imagine how the three circles looked. The two latter circles did not look like a circle at all. Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar followed-up by saying that the student had attempted thousands of circles all her life up to this time to be able to draw a close-to-perfect circle. She wouldn’t have done it if she didn’t draw thousands of imperfect circles. The lesson that Dr. Ben-Shahar wanted to draw out from this exercise was summarized in this catch phrase: “learn to fail or fail to learn.”

Motivating teenagers

It is relatively easy to get children to do what parents or teachers want them to do. Toys, candy, cartoon and play time, PS3, stickers, etc. serve as rewards to motivate children and direct their behavior. However, research in psychology of learning indicate that by the time an individual becomes a teenager, his behavior is no longer motivated by external rewards.

The growing child

As a person matures with age and subsequently experiences growth in cognitive, social-emotional and physical functions, his needs and priorities change as well. Hence an individual who was previously driven by stickers, toys, etc. may not find them appealing anymore. Parents and teachers who are not aware of this significant developmental milestone may get frustrated. Their attempts to direct their teens’ behavior fail. Parents/teachers and teens view each other as being inconsiderate and uncaring. At times, parents feel that their teens are rebellious and disrespectful of their authorities. Moreover, teachers feel that students are trying to act smart and make their work difficult. Teens on the other hand feel that parents and teachers will never understand them and provide them with what they really need. The gaps among these individuals grow wider with each passing day.

Identify crisis – the underlying cause

Why do the effects of external motivation dwindle by the time a child becomes a teen? Why can’t parents and teachers motivate adolescents with the same stickers and certificates as they would with children? While there are no definite answers to these questions, there seem to be a significant relationship between the uniquely-adolescent-experience called identity crisis and the changes in what makes adolescents tick.

It is during teenage years that an individual begins to strongly feel the need to develop a clear understanding of who he is, what his strengths and weaknesses are, and what he intends to accomplish in life. Teenagers experience the need to articulate this to themselves and others. If the question “Who am I?” is not answered constructively at this stage, then an adolescent is prone to painfully prolong identify crisis. Many carry on with this crisis into adulthood and old age. Sadly, both parents and teachers do not actively help teenagers with this task. Hence teenagers are typically pre-occupied with the thought, but do not necessarily know how to go about this difficult, yet important life assignment.

Mind over matter

As the need to define one’s self become pronounced, teenagers become more interested in subjective, intangible experiences and less attracted to material objects. In other words, the “mind over matter” outlook emerges. They become fascinated by ideas, concepts, and philosophical thoughts. They eagerly thread new territories that provide them with emotionally-packed experiences. Anything perceived to have no emotional value is of secondary value. This explains why teens are keen on “falling in love” with members of the opposite sex (apart from the fact that their bodies are undergoing hormonal and physical changes).

Soft motivation

Motivating teens with the use of external rewards, punishment, or other aversive stimuli fails to yield the results expected. These, whether positive or negative, are not the things that make a teen tick.

To motivate a teen, parents and teachers should focus on unconditionally assisting and supporting him to develop a positive sense of self-concept and self-worth. Additionally, parents and teachers should encourage the teen’s need for achievement and celebrate every success experienced, whether it is small or big. Talking about and modeling self-discipline to regulate one’s thinking, emotion, and behavior is another effective way to motivate a teen. Lastly, parents and teachers should be committed to challenging and stimulating teens to use their creativity to solve real-life problems. This entails helping them with useful, relevant knowledge and/or skills that results in mastery and increased efficacy.