Why All Students Should Regret in School
As we enter the final days of another year, for many of us this is a time to slow down and reflect on what has been. Objectives reached, opportunities missed. Moments celebrated, moments lost. The patchwork of any year contains fragments of days that we will always remember alongside those that we will do well to forget.
According to Daniel Pink’s latest book, The Power of Regret: How Looking Backward Moves Us Forward, this tendency to go back in time and “wish you had done things differently” is an inevitable component of the human experience. In fact, Pink explains, this negative association with certain aspects of our past is actually to be encouraged because, in the end, “regret doesn’t just make us human. It also makes us better.” It can improve the decisions we make. It can boost performance. It can even deepen our sense of the meaning and purpose of our lives.
In many of our schools, today, I believe that we have an uneasy relationship with the concept of regret. That is to say, while we regularly encourage students to look back on and learn from mistakes that they have made, it is not uncommon for us as educators to portray regret as something to be avoided at all costs. We encourage our students to “Work harder”, “Join the team”, “Take this course”, “Apply to this college”… all under the pretext of “Otherwise, you’ll end up regretting it later.”
Of course, I am not suggesting that we should stop encouraging our students to push towards certain goals or making good choices in pursuit of their dreams. What I am saying, however, is that, if Pink is correct, we might want to modify our language a little here and acknowledge to our students that regret is a natural and inevitable component of student (and adult, for that matter) life.
Perhaps taking physics instead of chemistry would have been a better choice. Perhaps you should have tried out for the volleyball team. Maybe you should have spent more time practising the violin. The point is, these “right” and “wrong” turns are inevitable. It is how you learn, grow, and adapt in response to them that will define how your life ultimately moves forward. This is surely what we should be teaching our students.
It might also be worth reflecting, while we are at it, on the relevance for schools of Pink’s American Regret Project and World Regret Survey, which analysed stories of regret from thousands of individuals across the world. What Pink discovered was that each story, whilst unique in its own way, could be divided into four categories of regret: Foundation regrets (If only I’d done the work); Boldness regrets (If only I’d taken the risk); Moral regrets (If only I had done the right thing); and Connection regrets (If only I had reached out).
This, Pink concludes, is the deep structure of regret that also hints at what we all ultimately want and need:
A solid foundation. A little boldness. Basic morality. Meaningful connections. The negative emotion of regret reveals the positive path for living.
In a few words, I suggest, Pink has captured the essence of a good life in a way that most of our students can actually understand, as opposed to learner profiles that sometimes have a tendency to speak in words that only trained educators can interpret.
In the end, we all know that a good life isn’t about taking physics rather than chemistry, any more than practising the violin an extra ten minutes each day. What we really want for our students is that they get the big stuff right. And that, when they don’t, they learn from it and move forwards. It’s also what we really want for ourselves.
Each year, always better than the last. Best wishes for 2023.