Is Emphasizing Failure a Mistake?

Photo by Tom Pumford on Unsplash

 

Alfie Kohn just kicked my educational philosophy butt!  In his blog post, “The Failure of Failure,” Kohn lays out a very convincing argument against promoting “productive failure” in the classroom and as a feature of progressive education.

“If you squint hard, I suppose that taking more time to figure something out could be described as a kind of failure, at least if you tend to think of success as immediately arriving at the right answer.  But that’s a weird way to conceive of meaningful learning.

On the one hand, such a description is too narrow.  To focus on the struggle (or temporary ‘failure’) that’s involved is to ignore most of what defines progressive or constructivist education.  Much more important are features like a curriculum built around open-ended questions rather than well-defined problems, and a change in the classroom structure that results in having students learn with and from one another.  ‘Productive failure’ misses all of this.

At the same time, that phrase is also too broad.  It lets in too much by implying (without evidence) that failure is a salient feature of how students experience a progressive classroom.  And it taps into a wider conservative narrative about the supposed value of failure and frustration—a recrudescence of the Protestant work ethic.”

 

As someone whose catch phrase is “Attempt—Fail—Analyze—Adjust—and Attempt Again” as a metaphor for how learning works, Kohn’s critique of failure comes very close to home.  I spend a lot of time talking to kids and teachers about how “failure” is a part of learning—a necessary part.  That making mistakes is what provides the brain with the opportunity to analyze, adjust, and try again.  And that it is in that analyzing, adjusting, and trying again that learning happens.

And I believe it.

Still.

Even after everything Kohn had to say about failure.

Even though I agree with almost everything he said in his post.

 

Kohn believes that many children who experience failure in school will develop debilitating interpretations of their mistakes that can quickly become a vicious cycle of self-defeating behaviors.

“The bad news is that coming up short may indeed be experienced by children as debilitating, particularly under certain circumstances.  As Deborah Stipek of Stanford University explains, that experience may change kids’ understanding of why they succeed or fail.  Unlike “children who have a history of good performance,” those who have learned to see themselves as failures are “more likely to attribute success [when it does happen] to external causes, and failure to a lack of ability.”  A kid who doesn’t do well assumes that if he does succeed, he must have just gotten lucky—or that the task was easy.  And he assumes that if he fails again, which he regards as more likely, it’s because he doesn’t have what it takes.

This quickly becomes a vicious circle because attributing results to causes outside of one’s control makes people feel even more helpless, even less likely to do well in the future.  The more they fail, the more they construct an image of themselves that leads to still more failure.  That’s particularly true when students are deliberately given overly difficult tasks in the name of “rigor.”  Or when the failure occurs in the context of intense pressure to succeed—or, worse, to defeat other students who are also trying to succeed.”

 

I can’t argue with any of that.  I see evidence of that vicious cycle all the time.  I see evidence of debilitating interpretations of failure.  In classroom after classroom.  In school after school.  In state after state.  The problem with unhelpful interpretations of failure is widespread in our educational system.

 

But I disagree with Kohn about one point.  While I think we should be doing everything we can to adopt structural changes to our education system and move towards “approaches defined by collaboration, discover, and open-ended questions.”  I don’t think that is sufficient.  We also need to move away from grade levels and our grading systems.  We need to empower teachers to address the social/emotional needs of our students.  And, we should be teaching learners powerful ways to interpret failure and how to move beyond habits of Attempt—Fail—Give up.

Alfie Kohn, I do not want to be part of the “fix the kid, not the schools” narrative that may be lurking in the grit and growth mindset movements.  I know our schools need radical transformation and I am standing for that and all that it entails.

But I am also not waiting for it.  And if I have a student in front of me that has unhelpful interpretations about their own capacity to learn I am going to use all the story editing techniques I can to help them come up with more empowering interpretations even if their schools are not yet designed to empower them.

And if I have a teacher in front of me, that hasn’t yet begun to experiment with moving away from grade level based standards and standardized curriculums, I am going to do everything I can to push their thinking and encourage them to engage in that experimentation.

I want to be part of an “Empower the kid, empower the schools” narrative that has both teachers and students engage in work that is challenging, meaningful, and designed to send the message that there is nothing wrong with not yet being excellent.  I want to ensure that educators are empowered to treat all learners to the ‘just right’ degree of challenge that allows the learner to experience struggle combined with success and understanding.  I want to empower educators to understand the underlying psychology and be alert for the subtle signals that demonstrate that a learner is at the impact of an unhelpful story and ensure that they know effective strategies for shifting the interpretation.

We are all learning and making mistakes is how we do it.

“Superhero Brain Man”—How a Silly Little Song Changed a Life

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

A while ago, I wrote about my nephew—how he was coming home from school telling his mother he was “stupid” because he was struggling with reading in first grade.  I was happy to work with him.  This is what I do. 

And I wasn’t worried.  I knew he wasn’t stupid.

But I also knew that—if he couldn’t develop a more powerful story about himself—fear of being stupid could grow like a dark, dank beanstalk and throw shadows on his life in ways all too depressingly familiar.  Shadows that could last a long, long time.

So I worked with him on his reading.  I coached him.  I used all the Read Right™ strategies that I know work.

But, honestly, I didn’t work with him that much.   I didn’t have time.  I was busy travelling and teaching other kids in other places how to more effectively push themselves up the learning curve. 

I think I probably worked with Kaemon on his reading about 10 or 15 hours total last year and I haven’t had time to work with him at all this school year.

 

And yet, he is doing amazingly better.

He is no longer coming home saying he is stupid.  He is loving school!  And he is reading—comfortably, naturally, and with meaning.  I overheard him on the phone the other night as he was reading his math homework out loud to himself and he sounded like a seasoned pro.

 

Wow!  How could 10 or 15 hours of tutoring have made that much of a difference?  I mean, this stuff is powerful and it works, but it doesn’t always work quite that fast.

 

I think there was something else at play.  In addition to using Read Right strategies, I threw in a couple of my own—well borrowed, of course, from other amazing educators and thinkers before me—and spent almost as much time coaching him on his mindset and his stories about himself as I did on his reading.

I taught him that ALL learners make mistakes when they are learning and that mistakes were not to be feared or avoided or hidden.  Mistakes were opportunities to try again.  Mistakes were opportunities for learning.

I taught him that he had an amazing, adaptable human brain that was DESIGNED for learning.  That learning was what his brain loved to do.

Then, one day, when his head hit the table and he scrunched his shoulders dejectedly and said he didn’t want to “do homework” (our term for reading coaching) after only five minutes of practice and a couple of miscues, I tried something new.

A power pose.

“Kaemon,” I said, “stand up and let’s try something.”

He got to his feet.

I stood my legs wide and puffed out my chest with my fists on my hips like a very Rubenesque Wonder Woman.

“Stand like this,” I suggested.  “Like you’re a superhero.”

Kaemon copied my pose and puffed out his little chest.

“Sometimes you can totally change your mood if you just stand like this.  It’s called a power pose and it’s designed to tell your brain that you are powerful and ready to learn!”

Some impish part of me—or perhaps the frustrated songwriter part—compelled me to add a little ditty to our power pose.  So I started singing.

“I’m a superhero brain man!  I like to make my brain work, a work, a work!”

Kaemon joined me in my singing with a seven-year-old’s joy in being silly all over his face.  After a few rounds of off-kilter singing, we got back to work reading with a renewed zest.

Since that day, when I get the chance to read with him, we always hum a few bars and occasionally power pose again as we remind ourselves that my man Kaemon is a superhero brain man who loves to learn!

And there’s nothing sweeter than listening to him begging his mom if I can come over to “do homework” because he is so proud of the progress he is making in mastering reading.

Nothing sweeter than noticing he is no longer coming home saying he is stupid.

Nothing sweeter than listening to him read his math homework to himself like a boss!

He’s a superhero brain man—that’s for sure!

And the sun has chased out the shadows in his story of himself and his capacity to learn.

When Personalized Learning is Too Impersonal

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash 

I remember the first time I heard the term “playlist” used in an educational context—it was in an audiobook I was listening to on the treadmill.

The author talked about this new charter school called RocketShip in the Bay Area.  He described how the teachers used playlists to personalize the learning and allow each student to pursue mastery of learning targets.

I remember being so excited that I yelled out, “Yes!” and pumped my fist into the air a few times as I was walking (perhaps not the coolest thing to do in the gym, but hey, I am a certified learning geek).

A playlist—using technology to help teachers navigate the logistics of bringing fluidity to our standardized system—this seemed brilliant!  I wanted so badly to go see it action, but the demands of my job and the shortcomings in my finances prevented such an expedition (so far).

 

Then, recently, I read something disturbing about playlists in education—the “playlist cycle of doom!”  

The playlist cycle of doom?  How could something designed to give learners exactly what their brains needed—based on where they actually were instead of where they were supposed to be—have turned into a cycle of doom?

This article’s author, Rupa Chandra Gupta, described the program her school was implementing:

“In 2015, our school was selected to join the first cohort of a personalized learning program that involved a web-based technology platform, curricula, digital assessments and extended training.  A foundation of the program had students learn the content (facts, definitions, procedures) largely on their own.  Students work through an online set of activities—called a playlist—for each topic.  They then take a quiz to demonstrate mastery.  Ideally, this is done with little support.  That way, teachers can spend more time working with students on application of content and projects.

As I observed classrooms, I noticed a significant portion of students go through a disturbing cycle: do the playlist, take the assessment, fail it.  Do the playlist (again), take the assessment (again), fail it (again).  Do the playlist (yep, one more time), take the assessment (uh huh), fail it (surprise, surprise).  It’s a frustrating experience, especially for struggling students.”

 

What Gupta described was not what had me pumping my fist into the air and embarrassingly yelling out loud in public. 

No.  This was not my vision of an educational playlist.  This “personalized” learning was far too incredibly impersonal.

I was excited about the possibility of using technology to allow teachers to bring fluidity to the groups of students they worked with, so that students were always able to work in their struggle zone—where it was never too easy nor too hard.  Where they had multiple opportunities to engage in Attempt—Fail—Analyze—Adjust in a supportive learning environment.

I never imagined creating a system that expected learners to learn on their own. 

Most of us need to work with others to access the true power of our amazing brains.  Humans are social creatures.  Learning is almost always most powerful when it is a social endeavor

I never imagined creating a system that did not include coaching. 

Beginning learners, who are on the low end of the learning curve, are not usually knowledgeable enough about the type of adjustments to try when engaged in a cycle of attempt—fail—analyze—adjust.  Having someone from further up the curve offer suggestions (coaching) about what types of adjustments to try is an extremely powerful key to learning. 

Analyzing and adjusting is a vital component of powerful learning and one that doesn’t happen with dependent learners without powerful coaching.  That is, unless you’re engaging learners in reflection about their own learning with others who are at the same stage of the learning curve (and who have previously learned skills for examining and sharing their own thinking).

 

Fortunately, Gupta did not leave us stuck with a vision of the Playlist Cycle of Doom.  She went on to describe just such an example of personalized learning that employed the power of shared self-reflection.  She discussed a second grade teacher who coached her students to reflect and share their strategies for reading non-fiction.

 

Unfortunately, Gupta’s school is not the only one to have experimented with taking the personal out of personalized learning. 

I attended an online school billed as a “competency-based” approached to higher education.

What that meant for me was almost no actual human interaction.  I was assigned a mentor at the beginning of my program which was a feature that had really drawn me to the school when I was conducting my research into master’s programs.

I was very excited by this feature.  I’d never truly had a mentor before and was really looking forward to someone who could push my thinking and point me in directions I might not have considered on my own.

Unfortunately, my mentor did none of those things.  I’m not sure whether it was a design of the program, or her own lack of clarity of what the role of mentor entailed, but my assigned mentor only acted in the role of “accountability partner.”  She allotted me 15 minutes a week and the main purpose of our calls was to make sure I was getting my assignments complete and turned it.

15 minutes a week is not a lot of time to build a relationship with someone.  It certainly wasn’t enough time to ponder all the questions I had about teaching, leading, learning, and where my place might be in the vast universe of shifting the paradigm for how schools work in America.

So, if the mentor wasn’t going to build a relationship with me and help me to ponder those questions, perhaps my professors might.

Except, I didn’t have any professors.

Each “course” I took in this program only had assignments. The “competency-based” approach meant that I could tackle these assignments at my own pace and whenever I wanted. There were materials I could access and boards I could post to if I had questions.  And, to be fair, if I had posted questions, I am sure that a real human with real knowledge would have replied to my query. 

But, I did not post questions.

The kinds of questions I had required a relationship and trust to be asked.  They weren’t the sort of questions I was comfortable posting for strangers.

I still haven’t finished this master’s program.

I dropped out (for now) at the very end because I didn’t have the emotional, institutional or financial resources to make the capstone project happen.

I am not trying to blame the pain of that personal failure on my unnamed school, but I am issuing a clarion call along with Rupa Chandra Gupta.

“Playlists alone don’t equal personalized learning” and personalized pacing alone doesn’t equal competency-based education.

We need to keep experimenting with how to use technology to allow personalized pacing and targeted lessons, but we must never forget the very human and social aspect of learning and the power of coaching along the way.

The Rocket Fuel of Learning

 

“Attempt—Fail—Analyze—Adjust” these words have formed a mantra for me ever since I first heard and saw them during my training as a Read Right™ consultant.  Dr. Dee Tadlock drew them as a cycle and explained that that is how brains learn a process.

I’d never heard it put that way before, and it struck a deeply resonate note within me.

Attempt—Fail—Analyze—Adjust—and attempt again.  A continuing cycle of learning with FAILING and making mistakes taking center stage in the learning process.

That certainly wasn’t how I’d been conducting my learning life.

Mistakes were things to be embarrassed about and minimized. 

Failure was definitely not good.  Up to that point in my life, I was pretty adept at avoiding it—mostly by making sure that I stuck to my lane and did things that I was already pretty good at.

My history was filled with abandoned learning journeys.  Things that I’d decided I just wasn’t very good at like singing, dancing, selling, writing, getting published, playing sports…..  Oh, the list was long.

Then I read Carol Dweck’s book Mindset and “Attempt—Fail—Analyze—Adjust” sang even louder in my ears and in my heart.

This—this thing we were teaching our teachers and that they were teaching their students about how learning works—this WAS the growth mindset.  If they could really grasp this idea about learning from their time in a Read Right program, they could use it in the rest of their lives to power their learning in other areas.  This was powerful!

The thing is, we didn’t always do a good job of highlighting this valuable way of looking at learning.  Attempt—Fail—Analyze—Adjust is the foundation upon which the Read Right™ methodology is based, but we only ever talked about it on the first day of training when we introduced teachers to the methodology and the theory that underpins it.  Those words are never again mentioned in our manual or in my trainer’s manual.

I changed that.

I put it Center Stage during my trainings.  I’d draw it on the board and talk to students about it.  I called it “The Rocket Fuel of Learning” and would bring in stories of famous people who had shared how they had learned through their failures.  I shared my own stories of failing and trying again.  I encouraged my trainees and the students in their classes to share stories of learning through failure.

For ten years I have been traveling the country and working in classrooms to help people understand the power of a personalized competency-based approach to getting better at reading.  I love this work.  I love what I get to do.  I love the difference I get to make in classrooms and in the lives of students who have an opportunity to get better at reading AND at understanding how learning works.

And yet…

And yet…

I fear we play too small a game.

I fear that too many of the students we reach do not take the idea of Attempt—Fail—Analyze—Adjust out into their other classrooms.  I fear that they do not apply the Rocket Fuel of Learning to math and science and Literature.  And I fear that lack of application is because the culture and the structures of their schools are not yet set up for that.

They are not set up for that. 

They are set up for grading.  For assignments.  For tests.  For one and done.

I know.  I see it.  In state after state.  In school after school.

And yet…

And yet… 

The change is coming!  Glory, hallelujah, the change is coming!

I see it!

I see it in Monte Syrie and his Project 180 blog.  In his tagline, “Do, Reflect, Do Better.”

In his words as he daily blogs about the lessons he and his students are learning as they attempt—fail—analyze—adjust—and attempt again:

“The 180 experience is a cycle of practice, feedback, and performance. The kids practice. I give them feedback. They perform. I assess their performances. Together, we adjust their aims and trajectories, and we enter the next cycle. When learning is a circle and not a line it obviates the constructs of anxiety and finality. When kids know they have practiced the performance (practice looks identical to performance), anxiety is greatly reduced, for they know what to expect. This is not always the case with “tests,” many of which are often the embodiment of the “gotcha game” that some teachers play under the guise of “rigor.” It is no wonder, then, that kids experience anxiety, especially in high school, where they arrive with their deeply conditioned responses and continue their “conditioning” throughout most of their educational experience, up to and including college. Further, when kids know they have another shot (multiple if necessary) to demonstrate proficiency, they come to learn that assessment can and should be “for” learning. And, too, they learn that the notion of finality is really more a teacher’s choice than a dictum of the system, but it has been their reality for so long they may never fully grasp the “untruth” of the nefarious notion of a test being an end rather than a bridge. And that is what I want performances to be: bridges, crossings to the next stage. I don’t want them to create anxiety. I don’t want them to connote finality. I want them to be natural steps along the learning journey. But that takes time, and that takes trust. I speak it. The kids hear it. But they do not yet believe it. After all, I am up against years of conditioning, so I will be patient and diligent. We will get there.”

 

I see it in other teacher bloggers who are making the same transition to classrooms and schools without grades and sharing the hashtag “#goinggradeless”.  More and more teachers experimenting—attempting, failing, analyzing, adjusting, and attempting again—as they figure out how to empower students to own their own learning and push themselves up the learning curve.

 

I see it in the stories of schools, districts—and ENTIRE STATES—moving to mastery-based learning models.  Stories that are posted regularly on www.competencyworks.org.  Beautiful articulations of the learning journeys of educators that are transforming their learning environments through the process of attempt—fail—analyze—adjust as they learn what works and what doesn’t.

 

So, yes.  So far, I and the company I work for, have been playing too small a game. 

We make a difference for the teachers and the students we get to reach, but our message of mastery-based learning that starts with wherever a student is at and lets them progress at their own pace through cycling until mastery is achieved, is not yet reaching beyond the confines of our Read Right™ classrooms.

But our learning journey is not done.

I am adapting and adopting the mission statement of Education Reimagined as my own.

They say:

“Education Reimagined exists to accelerate the shift to learner-centered education in the U.S. such that it is inevitable and irreversible.

I say:

Growth Deliberate Consulting exists to accelerate the shift to learner-centered, mastery-based holistic education in the U.S. and beyond such that it is inevitable and irreversible.

 And I am learning from others who are up to accelerating the shift as well.  Others who are sharing their learning journeys and lighting the way.

So thank you Monte Syrie.  Thank you Competency Works.  Thank you Education Reimagined.  Thank you Read Right and thank you Dr. Tadlock for helping me to see that F A I L simply stands for First Attempt In Learning.

 

Mr. Secretary, Please Don’t Roll Back the Healthy Lunch Program

I was in a school cafeteria recently, watching with dismay as kids threw fresh fruits and salads in the garbage.  I asked one of the teachers I was working with about it, and she said that the school had been mandated to include healthy foods, but that most kids still weren’t eating those foods and were going for pizza and burgers instead.

Now President Trump’s Agriculture Secretary, George Perdue, is talking about rolling back Michelle Obama’s Healthy Schools Initiative for just such a reason.  “If kids aren’t eating the food, and it’s ending up in the trash, they aren’t getting any nutrition—thus undermining the intent of the program,” Perdue stated at an elementary school in Virginia.

While I am not a fan of waste—or of mandates—I think a rollback is a mistake.  Just because our first attempt at shifting eating patterns in American schools is not working does not mean we have to throw our hands up in defeat and declare that it can’t be done.

It can be done.  I have seen it—and tasted it—in action, in real life, in a real school.

The Village School in Eugene, Oregon has been serving meals cooked from scratch using mostly whole, organic and local foods for years.  This food ends up in student and staff bellies—not the garbage can.  While I haven’t conducted any scientific surveys to discover if these kids are happy to be eating this food and not to be eating the processed foods offered to them by other schools in the district, I have seen a lot of happy faces in their cafeteria and seen trays piled high with fresh fruits and vegies from their salad bar.

The Village School’s path to a healthy vibrant scratch-cooked lunch program was not easy.  It took years and lots of volunteer hours from dedicated parents and staff to establish their program.  They needed to build the community infrastructure to ensure that local, organic foods were available and affordable.  This took enrolling a lot of people into contributing to the school and donating food resources. It is proof, however, that it can be done.

It is possible to convince American children to forgo pizza and hamburgers in favor of Yumm bowls (a beans, rice, and vegie bowl with Eugene-based Café Yumm sauce on top) and to get them to eat more fruits and vegetables.

It is even possible to convince myself to eat that way.

I am a classic example of the failure of the standard American diet to produce health and vitality.

I have been struggling with my weight and with food issues since I entered puberty.  The rest of the members of my family were thin.  I ate what they ate and became obese.

Like my family, I assumed this was because I ate more than they did and exercised less.  They urged me to eat less and exercise more.  Their comments only served to make me feel that there was something wrong with me, a feeling that I often chose to mask through eating.

I have tried repeatedly throughout the years to remedy this situation either through increasing exercise or decreasing food consumption.

I haven’t successfully sustained either strategy.

It was only when I quit eating refined carbohydrates that I was able to lose weight and keep it off.  I felt like I had discovered the secret to the universe and reveled in my increased health and decreasing waistline.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to sustain a diet that did not include processed foods when the rest of my world kept eating them.

I am now in the process of getting back into the game of learning to be healthy and eating in a way that produces health, vitality, and wellbeing.  I am clear that this means learning to okay with eating very differently than my colleagues, friends, and family.

I have spent years throwing up my hands in defeat and feeling like it was just too hard to change my habits.  But it is time to put my belief in the power of learning into action and learn my way to health.

There is so much more information about how food works in the body that wasn’t available even a few years ago.  I am finding that the more I immerse myself in the science of digestion and in the neural control of appetite, the more excited I am to develop a way of eating that does not include processed foods and is different than the way my friends eat.

There was a time when I couldn’t envision a future without ice cream.  Now, such a future is beginning to seem brighter than one with it—because I am recognizing the cost I am paying for that indulgence.

 

So what do the success of the Village School and my own struggles to develop healthy eating habits have to do with Secretary Perdue’s decision that we shouldn’t move forward with our mandate to ensure that the foods we provide to school children in America are actually good for them?

Both cases serve to highlight the power of learning and the power of culture to influence what goes into people’s mouths.  Eating is a highly social activity.  What we eat is usually strongly influenced (often at a subconscious level) by what those around us eat. 

You cannot mandate good food choices.  Simply telling people to eat better doesn’t usually work.  It certainly did not work for me. 

But that doesn’t mean we just give up and let the food industry have full sway in our school cafeterias.  Instead, we can empower our school communities to continue engaging in the process of attempt-fail-analyze-adjust-and attempt again in a journey to creating cultures that value health over convenience.

The Village School accomplished this through bringing the whole school community on board in their process to develop their school lunch program.

I am accomplishing it through educating myself and conducting experiments in my own life to determine what actually works and what eating habits I can sustain long-term.

If the government says that schools are not mandated to provide healthy foods for their students, then it is time for school communities and leadership teams to take up the baton and work as professional learning communities to figure out how to help students develop the knowledge and life skills to take charge of their health and make life-sustaining choices for themselves.