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Romancizing Failure?

It is a rare day that I take exception with Alfie Kohn’s opinions on educational issues. Today is one of those days.

Kohn recently republished a 2016 essay titled “The Failure of Failure.” He was focused on a Singapore study a couple of years prior that concluded that middle school math students experienced deeper learning when they engaged with the curriculum through a progressive approach (collaboration, discovery and open-ended questions) versus the traditional approach (listening to lectures and individually solving practice problems that have defined “right answers.”)

Should that surprise anyone? I sure hope not.

Kohn’s chaffing on this topic was that the study labelled the more successful progressive approach as “productive failure,” causing him to question the validity of utilizing student experiences with failure as a learning tool.

“Thanks to its adjective, ‘productive failure’ magically becomes a good thing. The question is how likely it is that failure will be productive. And the answer is: Not very. The benefits of screwing up are wildly overrated. What’s most reliably associated with successful outcomes, it turns out, are prior experiences with success, not with failure. While there are exceptions, the most likely consequence of having failed at something is that children will come to see themselves as lacking competence.”

He goes on to suggest: “When kids ‘learn from failure’ they’re likely to learn that they’re failures. Trying to succeed isn’t the same thing as trying not to fail. The first endeavor isn’t always constructive, but the second is pretty reliably destructive.” Kohn openly questions whether the studies about promoting persistence, “grit,” in children and supporting their “growth mindset” are appropriate or even helpful. “Anyone concerned about children’s mental health, and not just how well they do in school, has even more reason to be skeptical about the tendency to romanticize failure.”

Wait a minute. Aren’t persistence, optimism, focus, resilience, and other attributes associated with coping with failure considered key components of brain-based learning and foundational 21st century skills?

Failure isn’t the devil. Hell is how we label it and how we allow it to be overshadowed with negativity rather than as an effective instructional and learning tool.

Enter the conversation creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson. During one of his famous TED talks he said: “ . . . kids will take a chance. If they don’t know, they’ll have a go. They’re not frightened of being wrong. Now, I don’t mean to say that being wrong is the same thing as being creative. If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original. And by the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity.They have become frightened of being wrong. And we run our companies like this. We stigmatize mistakes. And we’re now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make. And the result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities.”

“If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.”

We do children an enormous disservice if we teach them to play it safe, to be risk avoidant. I can say with absolute confidence that coloring within the lines never produced a stellar work of art. I retired from a school that focused on creativity, which relies on the assumption of risk, which in turn offers a likelihood of episodic failure. It was a tough pill for some kids to swallow. What follows is an excerpt from my book, The Education Kids Deserve, in the chapter on failure titled “Banning the ‘F’ Word.”

The students 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 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. “To err is human. To bumble is fantastic!”

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.

I’m sorry Mr. Kohn. I respect and admire your work. However, I must advocate for a safe and nurturing embrace of the inevitable incidents of failure that kids will experience as they pursue deep levels of learning. Taking a risk, being “prepared to be wrong,” are essential attributes of innovation, creativity, critical thought and growth, both personally and academically.

Again, quoting myself: 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 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 both as students and as vulnerable human beings, and that the teacher and the student will work together to secure a successful path for learning.

I honestly don’t believe that is romanticizing failure.


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