I am honored to be guest-blogging for Joanne Jacobs between now and May 29. I have written for the Core Knowledge Blog, Common Core, New York Teacher, and elsewhere. I teach literature and theater at a Core Knowledge school in New York City. Later in the week I will write about “learning goals,” “professional development,” and more. Today I will start out with one of my favorite topics, failure, which was treated recently in a brilliant parody by Gently Hew Stone.
With the recent release of ELA test scores in New York City, we hear, yet again, that Bloomberg and Klein regard their reforms as a great success. Beyond questioning the test scores themselves, I wonder just how helpful it is to go around proclaiming success in the first place. Is success an unequivocal good? Is it an end in itself?
With failure you learn your limits. You may or may not be able to stretch them, but you find out what they are. Failure is like the molding of a sculpture. The bronze must pour into something. If it spills all over the place in an endless gush of success, it takes no shape at all.
There are too many kinds of failure to enumerate, but here are a few of the common varieties:
- Incidental failure. You know how to solve a problem, score a goal, or play a piece, you have done it right a hundred times before, but somehow, in the moment, you missed.
- Conceptual failure. You did not quite understand the task at hand. (At age 14 I attended a Soviet school in Moscow. I proudly memorized a poem by Nekrasov and recited it. When the teacher questioned me on it, my answer was way off; my misunderstanding of the Russian particle “li” threw off my understanding of the whole poem).
- Failure of ability (temporary). Sometimes we have not mastered the necessary skills for a particular task, and so we flub it: diving off the diving board, singing “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General,” etc.
- Failure of ability (permanent). Some things are forever beyond our capacity. As a child I wanted to be an Olympic gymnast. I had little flexibility and was timid about doing flips. I practiced daily but never made the school gymnastics team, let alone the Olympics.
- Failure of will. Sometimes we just give up in the moment or let some distraction or temptation take over.
- Circumstantial failure. Sometimes there are truly forces beyond our control that prevent us from doing something: for instance, being turned down for a role in a play simply because someone else had priority in the director’s eyes.
All of these are frustrating, and all of these have much to teach us. Take them away, and we are left with a mishmash of self and surrounding world. Not long ago, I spoke with an opera singer who gives music lessons at a local music school. He was telling me that there is great pressure on music teachers to tell children that they are doing a wonderful job, no matter what the reality. What favor are we doing them? he asked. How can they improve if they do not develop a critical ear?
In his wonderful new book Why Don’t Students Like School? A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom, Dan Willingham points out, on p. 143, “If you want to increase your intelligence, you have to challenge yourself. That means taking on tasks that are a bit beyond your reach, and that means you may very well fail, at least the first time around. Fear of failure can therefore be a significant obstacle to tackling this sort of challenging work, but failure should not be a big deal.”
It is a common PR tactic to portray oneself and one’s organization as successful. “Put your best foot forward” has evolved over the years into “Market your personal brand.” This may be effective for sales, but it is not a good tactic for school systems. We should not be trumpeting our successes, when these brash sounds do not help children learn. We should not be walking advertisements. Our failures may be among our greatest gifts.
“For thence,—a paradox
Which comforts while it mocks,—
Shall life succeed in that it seems to fail:
What I aspired to be,
And was not, comforts me:
A brute I might have been, but would not sink i’ the scale.”
–Robert Browning, “Rabbi Ben Ezra”