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Learning at its Best

Failure is not an option…?

For every action there is a consequence. Educators have a propensity to rely heavily on this sentiment, though I suspect most forget that they can help shape the consequence. If a child decides to not do their work (working at a middle-level campus I can assure you this never happens), most teachers begin a series of tiered consequences. Some try discipline sentences, others use time-out, others try lunch detentions, and many will call home. Each of these responses by the teacher has its own consequence and, whether intended or not, will only develop at most three reactions: 1) Shameful compliance 2) further rebellion leading to escalating punishments or 3) an attitude of “failure avoidance.”

Failure avoidance is the most destructive force in education today. We have baked it in to our students, some of whom then grow up to be teachers that use the same strategy on their students. Some of these teachers become administrators and use this strategy on their subordinates. Some become legislators and craft laws of the same spirit. We have created an entire culture that is terrified of failing.

Have we forgotten that failing provides some of the best learning opportunities? Have we forgotten that all great successes were preceded by tremendous failures? Babe Ruth had over 1,300 strikeouts. Hall of Fame legend Reggie Jackson had nearly double that figure. They failed and failed often. Education reform seems to be shaping up much in the same manner. Legislators, bureaucrats, businessmen, and think-tanks alike are all designing their various strategies under the premise of failure avoidance. Think about it this way: what happens if you don’t meet AYP? What about Race to the Top? Has there ever been a program that so explicitly encouraged teachers to teach to a test? It isn’t about learning. It isn’t about a student’s success in life and career pursuits. It is simply about getting students to fill in answers that the test writers believe to be correct.

What would happen if we decided on “failure recovery” instead of avoidance? What if failure wasn’t viewed as the end, but the beginning? What if the goal was to learn from your mistakes, make changes, and try again? What would have happened to the Great Bambino if he had struck out a few times and decided he wasn’t any good; a failure? Isn’t it the fear of failing that keeps us from even trying?

How can you succeed if you don’t fail? How can you learn if you don’t try?


About Greg Garner

I teach 7th and 8th grade technology classes in Tyler, TX as well as conducting professional development activities for teachers and administrators.


5 thoughts on “Failure is not an option…?

  1. Well you didn’t fail in your first post! Awesome! We most be able to make safe mistakes and lots of them… one of the main reasons to even join together in a learning community is to be able to make mistakes and fail…but then get the chance to try again!

    Great first post Greg! But personally I think you should try to fail next time :)!

    Posted by dloitz | May 27, 2011, 10:42 am
  2. Success is just refined failure. Miles Davis’ motto was: do not fear mistakes. There are none.

    He said this in the context of improvisation and the obsessive preparation that is necessitated for a jazz piece to work.

    To quote Rumi, “New organs of perceptions come into being as a result of necessity. Therefore, O man, increase your necessity so that you may increase your perception.”

    School reform is not often about increasing perception but rather about increasing projection. Fortunately, you see the man behind the curtain and, through need, have concluded that all we have is risks that are our safeties in disguise. Good on ya. Now let us translate that into action. I am sure you already have but you might want to be the first to address a pedagogy of action at this google form:

    Posted by Terry Elliott | May 27, 2011, 10:54 am
  3. As a school system, we punish ourselves so much for failing in so many ways that we stop seeing failure as useful. Posts like yours, Greg, help reminds us of the patience, perseverance, and mindset necessary to take advantage of the benefits of failure.

    We have to plan a ton of lessons to find the ones that work. We have to try a ton of differentiation strategies to reach every kid. We have to try on a ton of teaching personas until we find the ones that feel right and humane to us.

    It’s hard to do any of that when you’re liable to transfer your own anxiety of being judged a failure on to students whose work will be used to make that determination. You want control to avoid punishment, or to punish students for not complying so it can be documented that the students are the problem, not the pedagogy or curriculum or system.

    How do we get teachers to stop fearing failure? How do we shift teacher culture so that we don’t judge one another as harshly as we fear being judged by the public and our supervisors?

    These are important questions to ask, and failure is an important learning strategy to embrace.

    All the best,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | May 27, 2011, 11:31 am
  4. Greg, What if students were responsible for determining the learning they were to do? How would that change the prevailing attitude towards failure?


    Posted by Kirsten Olson | May 28, 2011, 1:16 pm
    • Kirsten, clearly that would lead to chaos. As we all know, children are far too stupid to know what’s best for them. Are you suggesting that a child could tell you things they like or don’t like? Or that they could accurately know things that are interesting or not interesting? Are you suggesting that the learning process be filled with pitfalls and failures and frequent changes of direction? Do you know what this would do to their scores?! This is why we must create a top-down command-and-control culture that determines what learning is and what it looks like. For example, students must study every subject in depth (not things like business, finance, economics, welding, carpentry, home economics, cooking, education, technology, computer science, or video game development as none of those are real subjects and have no value to the overall success of a student’s future career) and be prepared to select from one of four predetermined answer choices in a given scenario. Because this assessment model does not “fit” with the non-subjects listed previously (what chef/video game engineer/CEO chooses only one of four available ingredients? How silly!) we will limit this preparation (for now) to the four real subjects of math, science, social studies, and English/Language Arts (though really only Math and Reading are all that important). Anything that does not fit these prescribed methods cannot, by this very definition, be considered “learning.” Failure has no place in this type of institution and thus, learning is about success. Everyone knows this.


      Posted by Greg Garner | May 31, 2011, 10:54 am

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