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In Education Failure IS an Option: New Myths for Successful Kids and Better Schools

In Education failure IS an option, and a pretty good one at that.

Fear of failure is not a big issue for most kids going off to first grade. Their life is not yet framed with questions of success and failure. Even after a year in kindergarten where their mission was to make friends, create, do fun things, and learn as much as they can, the concept of failure isn’t really on the brain, much.

Unfortunately, most schools try to change this. Our culture is obsessed with success and failure in the context of a pyramid model of society, where some few will make it to the top and many will be left at the bottom. In our schools, this obsession generates a number of myths which result in (surprise, surprise) a few winners, many losers, and a lot of mediocrity. A few people will become self-disciplined, self-critical, learners who are comfortable in their own skin, good at working with others and practiced in thinking creatively. The majority will fall short and handle their inadequacies as best they can.

At the level of national policy both “No Child Left Behind” and “The Race to the Top” are (obviously) trapped inside the pyramid—right along with the rest of us. National and local education policies are powered by the same myths that drive with us to school every day. Myths like:

  • Nothing succeeds like success.
  • Natural ability is a predictor of success (and vice versa).
  • Success is about getting to the top first.
  • Classmates are competition; collaboration is cheating. (an unspoken one)
  • You can achieve success by leading with your strengths and hiding your weaknesses.
  • If we focus kids on measuring up to standards we will maximize their education.
  • There is a trade-off between self-discovery and standards.
  • (Add your own favorite.)

None of these folktales are borne out either by experience or research. Nothing succeeds like grit. Nothing succeeds like courage, connecting with people, mastering collaboration, and trusting in that peculiar combination of strengths and weaknesses that make you your own weird self. In other words, the kindergarteners have it right in the first place. If they come out of school screwed up, it is a pyramid school with parental support that screwed them up.

The children do not start off trapped. Success and failure are adult concepts, and wise educators don’t entertain them. Certainly there are a few children with bona fide neurological disabilities, but virtually all children can read, all children can learn to control their impulses and focus, and all children can be good at mathematics. The vast majority of those labeled disabled acquire the label because they didn’t reveal themselves capable according to the (time honored) timetable established by school.

What if “learning differences” were a concept honored and embedded in a system of education that was striving for what all kindergartners are originally striving for—to make something of their wonderful, sorry selves. They each learn differently and they know it; they can each make something of themselves, and they feel it. They are in the process of discovering their gifts and none of them are normal.

What if schooling were based on a new set of myths like those in the last 3 paragraphs? This alternative set of statements may or may not be “TRUE.” Some of them may also be myths. However, these myths are much more likely to produce an educated citizenry and a much larger number of happy, successful people than the myths of the pyramid model.

So what would be more new myths we could craft for better schools? Here’s a nice one: I’m okay just the way I am. Speaking for myself, I can attest to the fact that it is not, objectively speaking, true. But I don’t need to go on about that here. Let’s just say, I have made many mistakes and failed a lot.

It is, nonetheless, true  (and I have forty-four years of anecdotal evidence to back it up) that if you act as if it is true for yourself, you will find inside you the wherewithal to carry on till you finish the race. More importantly, acting as if it is true for other people, is about 75% of what you need to do to bring out the best in them.

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12 Responses to “In Education Failure IS an Option: New Myths for Successful Kids and Better Schools”

  1. Brian Fraser September 14, 2011 at 9:20 am #

    Great post. Your comments about “fear of failure” resonated with me. It’s interesting to me that failure is defined as “lack of success.” I think it’s very harmful to think of these two words as being opposites. Failure should be viewed as simply a normal part of the process of learning (and success).

  2. Rick September 14, 2011 at 12:03 pm #

    Nice, Brain. Thank you.

  3. Gary Gruber September 15, 2011 at 4:11 am #

    “Failure is not an option.” That is not only a myth, it simply is unrealistic and not grounded in the world of experience. Failure may not be a desirable option but even with the Navy Seals and the demise of Osama bin Laden, failure was clearly feared but considered as a real possibility. It’s much better for students, teachers, parents and schools to help kids fail early, make mistakes and learn from all of that when it’s much less expensive and damaging than later on when it can be costly and have deleterious results. Make more mistakes, learn more! Prosorum et sursum!

  4. Lisa bostwick September 15, 2011 at 9:42 am #

    So much comes to mind re: this subject but since u ask for additional myths….
    Making lots of money = success
    Getting everything right= success
    Figuring it out faster is better
    Producing more is better

    I like the idea of inviting students into conversations about false dichotomies like “success and failure”….. there is a much richer life out there than one that “buys into” this polarized view in the first place! cheers Rick from foggy SF.

  5. Doug Thompson September 15, 2011 at 11:59 am #

    Has anyone figured out a way to actually build failure into the curriculum? I’ve been toying with th idea for a while. Something like a graduatuion requirement that all students must take at least one class they will predictably do badly in, and in fact do badly. Obviuosly, phrased this way it won’t work, but how have people encouraged the possibility of failure?

  6. Lisa bostwick September 15, 2011 at 3:25 pm #

    I use mandatory thumb nail sketching in all my projects. The idea is thatstudents explore multiple possibilities b4 deciding on one to develop. While the unchosen “fail” they are a part of the creative process.

    Also taking on huge problems and allowing students to work on solutions – poverty, climate change … Unsolvable allows students to take risks…
    Check out “Design Thinking” where negative feedback is treated as equally important.
    Iphone post pls xcuse tye “failures” :;-)

  7. mosa September 16, 2011 at 6:27 pm #

    I don’t mean to be disrespectful but I wonder where you have been lately with all the pressure on all teachers to provide differentiated and individualized instruction for all students! The curriculum is driven by core standards that do not take into account individual differences but I can promise you that at the elementary school system in Mississippi, where I have served as the counselor for the past 20 years, our teachers are working very hard to meet individual learning needs and to address the learning styles of every student they have.

  8. Rick September 17, 2011 at 7:38 am #

    No disrespect taken. I am delighted to hear it. I, too, know many teachers who refuse to be trapped in the pyramid model, who see the curriculum as a mere framework within which their job is to help each child discover and develop his or her own character, and whose Socratic oath is to bring out the best in each child.
    I also know many great teachers who have dropped out of teaching because the system they are in makes it too hard to make sure each child in their care leaves their classes still loving learning.
    Many have also left teaching because they get tired of what they call “obstructionist teachers,” people who are not, themselves, learners, and who (out of incompetence or habit or ???) allow the curriculum, the standards and the tests to oppress children and make them hate school and feel bad about themselves.
    I am advocating for a change of culture that would make it more likely that teachers of the sort you are lauding will want to go into and stay in education, and would allow for children to graduate from eighth grade still loving learning and dying to go on to high school to learn more.

  9. Carletha currie September 17, 2011 at 3:28 pm #

    Failure is success “If you fail forward”

  10. Rick September 18, 2011 at 6:13 pm #

    Myth: Teachers know all the answers
    Antidote: No one knows all the answers and telling the class “I don’t Know” teaches children it is okay to say “I don’t know”. That is part of the learning process.
    Thank you, Jody Byers

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