Is “failure” an option?


cc licensed ( BY SD ) flickr photo shared by plural

I saw this tweet:

 

I have to admit…every time I see when others use the term “failure”, it makes me cringe.  This has nothing to do with the intent of what people mean, but just the word itself and what it says.

Many of us come from a different time in schools where, if you “failed” a test, this was not looked at as something that was just a part of the learning process.  This is was something that was looked down upon and often, the people that “failed” tests, didn’t necessarily do well in school after the fact.  Many of us in education understand that mistakes and “bumps” are a part of the learning process, as they should be. If people didn’t struggle with what was being taught, why would we have to teach it?

But many people that have, and should have, an interest in education that aren’t necessarily educators.  They can be parents, politicians, or anyone in the community, and when the term “failure” is used, it sometimes says something different.

You don’t think terminology is important?  Look at the backlash that Edmonton Public had about their supposed “No-Zero Policy” at the end of the last school year.  If you actually look at what the school was doing with assessment, the practices were totally focused on improving learning and helping students get better.  It was not a way for students to “opt out”, but from my understanding, it was a way for students to not have the “opt out” option.  The policy, whatever the name, was meant to higher expectations as opposed to lower them.  But when you say “no zeros”, that takes people back to a time that they were in school and doesn’t necessarily focus the conversation on the right thing; improving student learning.

Just to reiterate…I get why people say that “failure is important to learning”, etc., but does a short sentence with that one little word invoke faith in what our schools are doing?  Bill Gates failed.  Steve Jobs failed.  Tons of other failed.  I get that.  But schools are a place where all of us went and most didn’t go to school with Bill Gates.  Many of them will have stories of the kid who “failed” and continued to “fail” often; that is where many minds will go.

We work in the public eye and I do believe we have to be aware of the terminology that we use.  Even when we are doing something we could all agree upon is right, simple “words” may lead others to think different.

  • http://drstaub.wordpress.com Justin Staub

    I don’t think FAILURE is an option. To fail is an option, but to me failure indicates an end to attempts to get better. For instance, as a teacher I expect students to fail on attempts, but to try again until they are perfect (not just proficient). As long as students keep getting up and trying again, this is not a failure, it’s a failed attempt. The time they do not get up and consequently give up on themselves, that indicates failure.

    I have a video I’m nearly done producing about this concept… I’ll share it once it’s done.

    @mrstaubstem

    • shareski

      I think failure is fine, even if it means the end. Giving people/students the option to fail or give up is sometimes important. Failure shouldn't necessarily be seen as a fault. As humans we need to be given agency over success and failure. In schools, we've considered it such an awful thing that we've at times dragged kids by their ears, against their will to "succeed", often in an attempt to cover our as***.

      I say we provide opportunity for success but allow failure to occur. Not as an humiliating experience but rather as a choice. As part of a gradual release of responsibility, we increase the autonomy in that choice but we keep failure as an option and reality of life. Not to separate winners from losers but rather to separate humans from robots.

      This might explain my position a little better. http://ideasandthoughts.org/2011/07/27/can-failur

  • Tom Whitford

    I realize it's semantics George, but I am with you and Justin. Failure is not an option. It can be a learning experience. Mistakes are expected. But with that expectation also comes the expectation of learning from that mistake. Reteaching is also an expectation. I hope the public doesn't forget that Bill & Steve also went through those processes as well. I imagine that there was someone there to help them, and guide them and that they could bounce ideas off of when 1st attempts went awry. That is learning and collaboration, and that is where we all need to be headed. No standardized test will measure the desire and fortitude needed to become a lifelong learner. I am afraid there is no pacing chart for that either. We all grow in our own time. I hope teachers realize that and keep fighting the good fight. Make learning fun & challenging, and we will get them there.

    @twhitford

  • Paul Huebl

    An interesting point. I personally like the Michael Jordan 'failures' myself. However I see failure as an outcome not an experience along the way. "not succeeding" is a bit more aligned with what we want students to experience.

  • Greg Wilson

    Is resilience really what we are talking about – the ability to pick yourself up and try again reflect on what has happened and maybe modify your approach

    • Tim Wicks

      I get each point made thus far. I keep in mind this mantra – there is no failure, only feedback

  • neilrinhk

    The word 'failure' to me seems to be an endpoint…"I have failed at doing this…" I don't think that what is most mean. I believe it's about taking those risks, overstepping your boundaries and making mistakes on your way to understanding. If you finding your way to get somewhere and you get lost you don't say "I've failed"…you say " Oh, I'm lost, I've made a mistake but you mostly get there eventually".
    Great read…thank you!!

  • pbrainedthoughts

    Language is a powerful thing. The word failure is a powerful word that elicits an emotional response from most people. "Multiple attempts" is not nearly as an emotive phrase but in the context of this conversation conveys similar meaning. Because educators are very much in the public eye as you note, and working with what is most precious to parents – their children, we do need to be very careful with the language we choose.

    I would also suggest that the word failure has a "black and white" connotation, either you failed or you didn't. Current assessment practices are far from a black and white process and by design work in shades of grey. I would suggest that we choose language that reflects the evolving nature of the assessment process (re-do, meeting criteria, incorporating feedback, etc.) to better reflect the progress of our students.

  • mrjtyler

    As it was my tweet, I need to first apologize for the error with the missing word – I "failed" to edit properly! Couldn't resist ;)
    In all seriousness, what I am seeing and have seen is the agreement that we need to choose our words carefully and when it comes to this word in particular the history attached to it makes it a powerful word.
    I have posted a longer explanation of my take here http://wp.me/p1LFAQ-3o but the short version is that I think we all agree that we use this word differently now in education than previously (or we are trying to get people to view it differently). If that is the case then I see this as an opportunity to evolve thinking rather than avoid the use of it.
    Thanks again for pushing my thinking forward George.

  • Jessica Schmidt

    i have to agree … like others have pointed out, the word ‘failure’ is wrought with negative connotations…

    i would love to live in a place where we could speak of failure as a positive, without actually harming student self-worth and confidence and rather focus on constructive criticisms for improvement…

    our students need encouragement… they need support… they need success.

    not to get too scholarly here, but I recently read in Chappuis, S., Commodore, C., & Stiggins, R.J. (2010). Assessment balance and quality: An action guide for school leaders, the following quotes ring true in this regard:

    “ongoing success spawns the actions needed to produce more success. But, for struggling learners, chronic failure can lead to a pattern of just giving up” (p. 23).

    “students’ emotional reactions to any set of assessment results, whether high, midrange, or low, will determine what they think, feel and do in response to those results” (p. 24).

    “the students are the ones who actually choose whether to strive or give up” (p. 26).

    therefore as educators we need to be very careful how we approach assessment and evaluation, specifically when it comes to “failure”. I would never suggest that teachers ignore failure or lack of meeting outcomes and standards, in fact I believe the opposite, but there is a level of skill and tact necessary when giving results and feedback.

    i truly believe that it is crucial that educators take time to consider students' emotional reactions without dismissing them as unimportant, taking the time to deliver results, feedback or criticisms to all students with encouragement, empathy, and optimism, ensuring to avoid embarrassment, humiliation, or shame.

    Just my thoughts, thanks again for another fabulous post! :)

  • http://www.tomhierck.com Tom Hierck

    Thanks George. I agree the language is often a challenge as most words are defined by context and very few people outside of schools understand our context. I also put together a blog on this topic (http://umakeadiff.blogspot.ca/2012/07/learning-from-failyour.html) and know further conversation is needed if we are to achieve the positive outcomes that learning from being challenged can produce.

  • Pingback: Is Fearing Failure a Good Thing?

  • Pingback: Defining Failure?

  • Pingback: Resiliency and Grit, Not Failure | The Principal of Change

  • http://www.callboxinc.com.au/ Maegan Anderson

    I agree that failure is a big part of success, but the idea behind “Failure Isn’t an Option” is that you keep trying. You can still fail a thousand times, but failure is not the end goal. Thank you for sharing! :)

  • Pingback: How to Answer Interview Questions Series - #43 | Career Confidential