Embracing Failure Before Success at TAS

By Lindsey Kundel, Director of Communication

Head of School Dr. Grace Cheng Dodge, in collaboration with Director of College Counseling Ms. Melanie Brennand Hamre and Director of the Tech Cube Mr. Matt Fagen, spoke to lower school parents on January 19 on the importance of failure for students at Taipei American School. 

Parents attended the presentation on campus in the Lower School's Harmony Theater and online through a Zoom webinar.

Although it might seem odd that the School brought the Director of College Counseling to speak with lower school parents – some of whom will not have a student applying for college for more than a decade from now – the concept behind today's presentation was actually crafted a decade prior to today when Dr. Dodge herself led the college counseling team at TAS.

"I was asked by the former lower school and middle school principals to address parents of younger students as to how TAS prepares students for a life after graduating from TAS or from another high school," said Dodge. "What are we teaching your children and why do WE think it’s important?"

The answer? Taipei American School wants our students to fail, a concept which they discussed for over an hour with parents.

Dodge, Hamre, and Fagen thought this was a perfect time to bring back this presentation so that more and more parents can understand why the school believes in failure. Ultimately, Dodge, Hamre, and Fagen hope that parents will better understand and partner with the School in this approach as their students head into middle and upper school and, eventually, graduate. 

"Regardless if you and your family stay at TAS until graduation," Dodge said that she hopes the presentation will give both "reassurance and optimism" as to what an American-based curriculum at an independent school can do for children. Failure isn't wrong, she warned. But a lack of failure in a child's life can wreak havoc on their growth.

Dodge began her portion of the presentation admitting a large caveat to parents. "I want to admit here that you will hear mention of Harvard a couple of times in this presentation because both Melanie Hamre and I both attended the school and then worked in the admissions office for years," said Dodge. "I want to acknowledge that though some of you want your children to attend a school like Harvard, schools like Harvard are not the best fit for many students. The reality at TAS is that many families have expectations of their children to attend the world’s most recognized names of colleges and universities but do not fully understand how that expectation alone could actually be hurting your child’s potential, performance, and overall happiness throughout his or her TAS journey."

She went on to explain that at TAS, we care more about our student's entire KA-12 learning journey and the empowerment that we want each student to feel while in school. That, said Dodge, is why we work in this KA-12 environment.

One important takeaway Dodge hopes parents understood is that a school is no longer a place of rote memorization, says Dodge. At TAS this is especially true, considering the wording of our mission statement. According to all three speakers, grades and scores no longer indicate who is smart. The accomplishments that can be listed on paper are just one part of who they are. Instead, Dodge reminded parents that it is those students who can acquire and apply both soft skills and a depth of character to every problem they need to solve and interaction they will have who will thrive in today’s world.

"We hope you are not thinking how to strategize crafting a child who will be a strong college applicant," said Dodge. "Instead, we hope you are thinking of how you allow your child to be their best self, best self-advocate and allow that individuality to blossom." 

A child's best self is not determined by a test score, nor is their self-worth determined by which college they attend – a point made by both Dodge and Hamre.

"If I see you in a decade or so, and you are embarrassed or upset as to your child’s college acceptances, we have all failed in our mission and you may have misunderstood why you chose TAS in the first place," said Dodge. "If on the other hand, we are all proud of the experiences your child will have seen and grown from over the course of time, and that your child has the confidence, initiative, and healthy outlook on life that makes them excited to start college – which is the beginning, not the end – then we have done our job."

After Dr. Dodge finished her remarks, Ms. Hamre began her portion of the presentation, discussing in detail the process that juniors and seniors embark upon with their college counselors. Their journey is to find a college that is a good fit for their individual passions and potential and not just a name brand.

Hamre says that failure is an important part of the college counseling process because a student needs to have developed both resilience and a growth mindset prior to graduation in order to be considered a successful applicant at many colleges today. 

"Many articles, research, shows this is a continual process and skill to be nurtured and practiced. Failure is a critical component of this and not something to be afraid of," said Hamre.

In fact, just last week, the Harvard School of Education released a study showing that the idea of a growth mindset can be nurtured beginning as early as a child's infancy.

And at TAS, our Lower School is already hard at work to instill a growth mindset in our youngest students. Our students of all ages need to be able to celebrate the success of others while also admitting that making mistakes is okay. It is only with feedback that any of us are able to improve. We are not born with mastery of any subject; instead, it develops through and with different forms of failure.

Ms. Hamre encouraged lower school parents to begin to see risk-taking and acceptance of failure as a key soft skill that parents should want to see from their children. This will help them throughout their time at TAS, and it will help them as they begin to think about which college they might want to attend and beyond.

The presentation culminated with remarks from Matt Fagen who shared his own personal experiences with failure and (eventual) success.

Fagen shared that he began his teaching career attempting to use the lecture-based "sage on the stage"-model of teaching that he found useful back when he was a student. 

"When I became a physics teacher, I was so excited to model all of the great teaching I had seen in my student career, and I did just that," said Fagen. "But the outcome was not what I expected. It turns out I was only reaching about 3 or 4 kids in each class! The rest of the students looked, well, bored."

Instead of being discouraged and leaving the profession, Fagen doubled down, encouraging his students to become more hands-on in the classroom.

"I changed my approach, and the results were dramatic," said Fagen. "I started teaching physics in a hands-on style where students got to decide on physical projects that demonstrated the principles we were studying. Same material, but when students got to not only experiment, but decide on how to experiment, and when they started to fail, and realize everything wasn’t prefabricated with a predetermined outcome for success, something really beautiful started to happen in the class. The students were all engaged. They felt there was something real at stake. It was exciting to them that I didn’t know the correct answer and how the experiments would end up. And they came to life. And comprehension went way up! Not just for a few students, but for a majority of students."

He says that the secret to his (and the Tech Cube program's) success is that the Tech Cube isn't actually about robots. Robotics is just a great way to reach a diverse group of students.  It’s really about creative problem solving, working collaboratively, and finding your unique value on a team. Growth in all of these areas is based fundamentally on failure. 

"It’s a chance to figure out their value and what they can contribute to a team, and that each person is valuable for a different reason, and it’s a chance to learn to take joy in trying and failing," said Fagen. "This is a skill they will absolutely need in our future."

Fagen encourages parents and students to be honest with themselves as they learn new things because true learning very rarely goes well throughout the entire process. In fact, he says that he has now learned that if students say that a project is going "good" during a unit, that is an indicator that they are still shy about sharing their mistakes.  Technical projects are almost never going “good,” according to Fagen.  As a student's confidence grows, they are more likely to freely admit that something is NOT going well at that moment.  This confidence is evidence of a deeper understanding of the process and the mindset needed to eventually succeed. 

All three speakers wove a common theme, that of encouraging our community to more closely align our definitions of success with joy, and to let all know that failure IS success – or at least the only possible path there. 

If you would like to learn more about the KA-12 approach to embracing failure as a path to later success, please be sure to check out the recording of this presentation, which is available to all community members through the TAS Portal and the Microsoft Stream video archive.