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Building students’ productive risk-taking, one math problem at a time

When we encounter alums of our Partnership schools, there’s one question that we’re always bound to ask: how well-prepared were you? Naturally, we want to make sure that our elementary students are ready for rigorous high schools, and for the rewarding academic, career, and life opportunities that can come after that. The feedback they give us can provide unique insights into how we can continue to evolve our approach.

We asked college student Aldayr Ochoa that very question last week. A graduate of the Partnership’s Our Lady Queen of Angels School and of Xavier High School, he is now a sophomore at the University of New Haven. When we asked him in what ways he felt prepared for high school and then college, we expected a rundown of subjects he felt more or less prepared to tackle—perhaps a comparison of homework loads in eighth and ninth grades.

Instead, Aldayr pointed without hesitation to one trait he acquired at OLQA: “fearlessness about making mistakes.” His middle school teachers helped him most, he explained, “by teaching me that it’s okay to mess up; it’s in those mistakes that you get to learn.”

Without that, he said, “I’d be sweating, I’d be terrified with the fact that I got something wrong.” And, he surmises, that would have caused him to avoid opportunities that involved some risk of getting things wrong: “There’s so much out there to learn. And if I didn’t go to Catholic schools, I would have blocked that idea out and ignored the fact that I can keep going.”

Aldayr as a junior at Xavier High School, with one of his OLQA middle school teachers, Will Beller.

The idea of a “culture of error” is something we’ve talked about for years at all the Partnership Schools. As Doug Lemov and the team at Teach Like a Champion note, a culture where mistakes are expected and learning from them is valued is one of the hallmarks of a high-functioning classroom.

On a daily basis, we tend to focus on a culture of error’s positive impact on student learning in the classroom. Aldayr reminded us last week, though, that building students’ resilience one math problem at a time has implications far beyond the subject matters of our classes.

A host of books such as Wendy Mogel’s The Blessing of a Skinned Knee and Jessica Lahey’s The Gift of Failure elaborate on the importance of parents letting children learn from mistakes—particularly parents who are well-positioned with the time and resources to do so. In families like Aldayr’s—where parents have sacrificed to come to the U.S. and have high hopes that their dreams for their children will come true—students often have little choice but to put themselves in unfamiliar environments, where the chances for new mistakes are high, and the perceived consequences of making those mistakes are even higher. Without muscle memory of overcoming past errors, young people may be tempted, whenever they are able, to avoid venturing into settings where they might make lots of them.

When we think about the lives we want for our graduates, they are lives that include productive risk-taking—like going to college, and doing so in a new city, as Aldayr has done. There are both practical and existential risks to that kind of risk-taking, particularly for working-class and first-generation college students. And those risks seem only to be growing as both college and the consequences of not having a post-secondary degree grow more expensive. Arguably, these realities make it all the more important that we equip our students not just with the foundation of content knowledge and skills they’ll build on to succeed in high school and college, but with a crucial sense of agency in the face of the risks they must take on in order to achieve the aspirations they carry with them into those settings.

As an elementary school network, we have no control over those challenges our students will face after they graduate from our schools. But we do have the ability to contribute, every day, to the resourcefulness and resilience they’ll need to face those challenges themselves.

Beth Blaufuss is VP for Strategic Initiatives at Partnership Schools.