Second Chances

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My best friend often says, “People deserve lots of second chances.”

“But why?” I ask, trying to grasp the concept. “At some point don’t you risk people taking advantage?”

“Walter, people do the best they can. It makes no sense making it harder on them.” I dedicate this blog post to my best friend and this wisdom I have come to adopt as my own.

In an age of cynicism and competition, I find the notion of second chances refreshing, intriguing even. But is it practical? Individually and collectively, how can we afford lots of second chances? Then again, are life and learning value equations? Is there some economic benefit to separating the men from the boys, so to speak? Or in reality, do we all rise to our own potential over time, given the chances and support we need to succeed?

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As I look back over a lifetime of opportunities and challenges, how many times did I nail anything on a first try? Not many. How many second chances have I used? How many mentors supported me as I tried and failed and tried again? How many practice sessions? How many retests? How many mulligans? How many “I’m sorrys”? How many times redeemed by forgiveness? More times than I can count. And that’s just my lifetime. How about yours?

Learners grow in expertise and understanding the closer and closer they get to learning targets. They approximate their aim, try to hit the target, make adjustments, and try again. The more they continuously refine their efforts, they not only get closer to the target, they learn about the area around the target, and about their aim. Both accurate and inaccurate, every attempt is new information learners integrate into their learning experience. It not only informs their current learning, it’s practical learning knowledge they can apply in new situations in the future. What are the conditions that allow this to happen?

  • Give yourself permission to take risks.
  • You are supported in making multiple attempts.
  • There are no value judgments of right or wrong, good or bad.
  • Both successful and unsuccessful attempts to reach your target are valued as learning.
  • The only requirement is continued improvement, incorporating new learning into existing understanding.

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One-chance, go-for-it-all, win-or-lose feats of skill may be a staple at carnivals, but they have no place in the classroom. At least on the boardwalk you can pick which games to play based on your perceived chances for success. Some games you can win if you’re willing to put down enough cash. Some games are rigged so the odds are against you. And some games are a flat-out sucker’s bet. If carnies gave their customers lots of second chances, they’d never turn a profit. Compare that with the ways we asses students. High-stakes tests reward those with skills that match the test format while penalizing those who demonstrate learning using alternative test formats or don’t perform well under pressure. Is this any way to allow all students to show what they know?

A generation ago, memorization of rote facts and mastery of discrete skills were the measurements of student success. Being accurate was the ideal, and this lent itself to the notion of testing as pass-or-fail snapshots in time. Now we can access such basic information on the fly without memorization, and new benchmarks measure higher level tasks. Assessments today should not measure quantifiable learning assets but sophisticated learning processes: problem solving and new product-development targets.

Where are the second chances in our current system? It isn’t acceptable to have students live and die by one-shot, high-stakes tests. It isn’t fair to label students based on those test results. It isn’t appropriate to build an entire year of learning around these tests, as if the test provides incentive to teach and learn. It isn’t realistic to expect all students to find success through the same learning methods, or to demonstrate what they’ve learned in the same ways. And it isn’t right to look a young person in the eye and tell them they are out of second chances … ever. We should be in the business of creating lots of second chances for our students.

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It’s no different in life once students are out of school. One of my favorite movies of all time is My Favorite Year (MGM, 1982), in which young staff writer Benjy Stone (Mark Linn-Baker) is charged with babysitting washed-up Hollywood star Alan Swann (Peter O’Toole) to ensure he will be sober, present, and ready to perform on the live TV variety show at the end of the week. Through the twists and turns of the plot, Stone and Swann become fast friends, in spite of the many close calls the actor’s larger-than-life persona precipitates. Benjy has Swann at the studio the night of the show, so that when the host is accosted by local thugs on the live set, Swann appears from up on a balcony, swings down onto the stage in full costume and sword, and helps the show’s star fend off the attack. As Swann basks in the redemption of the applauding audience, Benjy stands in the broadcast booth and looks on pensively: “The way I see him here, like this. This is the way I like to remember him. I think if you were to ask Alan Swann what was the single most gratifying moment in his life, he might have said this one right here. With Swann you forgive a lot, you know? I know.” In life, as in learning, we gain growth and understanding through second chances.

People deserve lots of second chances. Where would you be today without all of the second chances you have been afforded in life? Second chances are the pathway for all students to be college, career, and citizenship ready. As educators, we should all be the champions of second chances for young people everywhere.

4 thoughts on “Second Chances

  1. My 3rd grader once failed entirely a standardized reading exam. The teacher called me in puzzled,” I think she can read I don’t understand this.” I pointed out she had a visual acuity issue that fascinated her optometrist, maybe she filled in the dots one off. She checked it out. Yep. This child, now grown up, has an advanced degree in engineering and invented a way for a blind student to “see” physics and math images in braille that is of interest to others in her field much more experienced than she. But she failed a 3rd grade reading test. Go figure. She needed a second chance.

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