My last school was a public arts magnet academy. We served 6th - 12th graders who had in common an abiding interest, if not tremendous talents, in the performing, studio or communication arts. They held themselves to very high artistic and academic standards. Ours was a culture of success. As an example, 100% of our annual graduates could articulate their specific post-secondary plans to further pursue their interests, some in the arts, others outside of artistic fields. Our graduates find their next steps at large universities, private liberal arts colleges, conservatories, trade schools, community colleges and military branches. The point is that they were driven toward their goals. For them, failure was not an option. I seized every opportunity to encourage students to “keep doing your best, even if your best effort comes up short.” We were deliberate in fostering a school-wide climate that celebrated risk taking. Our school was a place where we actively promoted that one needn’t be derailed by a failed attempt. “It’s okay to make a mistake if you learn from it,” I would incant. However, even for these nonlinear, divergent thinkers, the students had a genuinely hard time wrapping their head around the notion that failure could, in any context, be acceptable. It was a concept that was contrary to the relentless messaging they had experienced for as long as they could remember. “Are you telling us it’s okay to get a F on our report card?” some would ask with a teasing look in their eye. “You can’t fail if you keep trying,” would be my response. They wanted to believe me. They really did. But, I was giving them permission to use the “F” word in school. To them, that was inconceivable.
The word itself was an issue. The students understood what I was getting at, and they knew that they had experienced the very thing I was promoting. However, the label, with all of the implications and perceived judgements attached to it, was problematic. So, we changed our cultural vocabulary. No longer would we call attempts that fell short “failure.” We took that word out of our shared lexicon and replaced it. I recall fondly the student body’s reaction when I announced our new descriptive word. Their laughter was spontaneous when I introduced them to the term “Bumble.” They laughed because of the way the word sounds and the way it feels as it rolls off of the tongue. They laughed as they entertained visual images of the dictionary definition: “to move or act in an awkward or confused manner.” And, they laughed out of relief. They could now embrace this powerful learning opportunity without stigma or fear. It became akin to an inside joke. “Way to bumble” or “I sure bumbled that” was met with good hearted respect for the attempt and encouragement to have another go, not shame or ridicule. There was no disgrace attached to bumbling. It was seen as an honest and sincere component within a healthy culture of artistic risk takers. I retired before there was an opportunity to develop a motto. Perhaps it could have been “To err is human. To bumble is fantastic!”
With some regularity, I would bring student achievement data to my teaching staff for them to examine for any observable trends or patterns. I had high levels of trust, respect and affection for my teachers. However, I was frequently disappointed and perplexed by their reaction when I would ask: “Are there any instructional implications suggested by this data?” Rarely, did they identify any professional practices or appear to care about considering their involvement in the reported outcomes. It was clear that they saw the information as student data only, and they could readily identify student shortcomings as reasons for what was in front of them. Homework completion, attendance patterns, engagement in class . . . a fairly lengthy and predictable list of “if only” responses would unfold. It became clear that my teachers were unable, or unwilling, to see themselves and their practices in the data. I pushed against this on numerous occasions, at sizable risk to the relationships I had with, and within, my faculty. Only one thing was clear. Professional adults, like the children or adolescents they serve, personalize anything that they perceive as criticism or that might hint at some failure. Rather than learn from whatever shortcomings or areas of improvement the data might suggest, they would prefer to hold it at arms length with an invisible, but palpable, “not me” disclaimer attached. No one, whether young or old, wants to be perceived as having failed. However, absent the condition where a student makes no attempt to learn, academic failure is a shared outcome of the shared enterprise of teaching and learning. It didn’t occur to me to rephrase the question. “Does this data indicate any bumbling?” Opportunity missed.
Call that which doesn’t meet the mark whatever you like. Just don’t label it “failure,” a word that perpetuates fear and insecurity for students who sincerely want to learn. The adoption of safe, benign, nonthreatening terminology clears a path for a precise collective understanding of what constitutes true personal failure. Quite simply, personal failure is not trying, the lack of making an attempt. The only way a student should conceivably be able to fail is to choose to. The advocated shift from standardized, bell curve, instruction of a group of students, moving instead toward a personalized educational experience, must be accompanied by a clear message offered to each child. It is this: “The only way you can fail in this class is if you don’t try.” That statement becomes a promise, a contract. “You do your best. I’ll do my best. Together, we will both succeed.” Each student must trust that their teacher, or teachers, will get to know and understand them as students and as human beings, and that the teacher and the student will work together to secure a successful path for learning.