Sunday, January 5, 2020

Does a mistake have to be an "epic" fail? Or does it just feel like one?

I've been thinking a lot about failure. There's no need to suggest an intervention of some sort. It's just that I've been paying particular attention to all of the things that educators should be doing, or ought to try or implement in their classrooms. It's exhausting. I mean, it's only the beginning of the year and already educators are getting pressed to try or read or do something new. There are just so many lists out there!

I wrote recently about failing forward and whether or not that was truly a thing in education. I'm not sure we really believe that failing forward is okay or that FAIL is the "first attempt in learning." Yes, some teachers do and do that well, encouraging their students when they make a mistake, helping their students that a mistake was not the end of their learning or personal universe, etc. And through that encouragement, and through teachers modeling how to behave when they make a mistake, is helping students learn how to fail.

It amused me that after I published my blog, there were other considerably better known educators and bloggers who published about failure, so clearly I was channeling something, and it caused me to reflect more on how we see and respond to "failure." I put the word in quotes quite deliberately because one of the things I muse on in my other blog is the difference between making a mistake and actual failure.

Apollo 13: Launching "Failure Is Not an Option"
Museum of Flight
The movie Apollo 13 was released in 1995. It was, and is, a compelling film. From that, thousands, maybe even millions, of people adopted the famous phrase "failure is not an option." Now, in the film, failure really wasn't an option, not if they wanted to get the crew back to Earth alive. Those were very distinct and important parameters, and there were very clear implications and consequences if that engineering team failed or if the crew failed to implement the solution successfully.

After the film there were movements in leadership and in education about failure not being an option. Go ahead and Google "failure is not an option" to see the numbers of books and articles espousing that very idea. Among those books was Alan Blankstein's book, Failure is Not an Option: Six Principles That Guide Student Achievement in High-Performing Schools. I have issues and not just the qualifier of "high-performing," though I should note the title changed in the 3rd edition to "highly effective" schools.

Based on an account of his ASCD presentation, the first three principles Blankstein espoused are not unfamiliar: 1) Teachers pursue a clear, shared purpose for all student learning; 2) teachers engage in collaborative activity to achieve that purpose; and 3) teachers take collective responsibility for all student learning." Yet, that's all about the teachers and what they do. What about the students?

Oh it certainly didn't help that schools were shamed when test scores weren't good and browbeaten when test scores were failing, and then teachers were equally shamed for "teaching to the test" which they really had to do to make sure their test scores were good even though most competent human beings know that standardized tests aren't necessarily equivalent to measuring actual learning or that they measure actual learning that is worthwhile.

Why "epic" fail?
I know "epic" is a cool descriptive, but in the part of my mind that is a pursed-lip, frowning language pedant, I'm troubled by the overuse because then what do we use when something is truly epic? You know, something amazing and truly heroic? I don't mean something that makes you look like a fool because you tried a trick on your skateboard and fell without managing to do serious harm to yourself.

But hold on, there's some learning to do here.

In 2018, A.J. Juliani, an educator and blogger I follow and for whom I have great respect, published a blog titled "My 2018 Failing Report." That's pretty innocuous, right? In it he has a great image of the difference between one's plans and the actual reality, which serves to remind us that most things don't go as we plan. In the blog he talks about the "epic fail board" and his mantra, "Sometimes you win and sometimes you learn." In the blog he goes to talk about what he believes constitutes his failures; for example, he wanted to create a number of videos but created only two. He explains that he learned through the process of creating videos and how those worked with his blogs. My favorite part of this blog is this:
Failing, it seems, is part of the job. Admitting that you’ve struggled is one thing. Sharing how you’ve struggled and learned is what I’m aiming for with this post.
Then I read about an Epic Fail Board at Northern Arizona University, it's focus on mental health. As I read this article, it occurred to me that "epic" is a matter of perspective.

In the moment, a mistake can feel like an epic--as in colossal, life-changing, horrific, death-defying--failure.

We've all had those moments and, later, when the emotion has ebbed away, realized the situation wasn't as dire as all that. Though, yes, it certainly felt epic until it didn't.

How to fail successfully
Way back in 1982, Jill Briscoe published a book titled How to Fail Successfully. Briscoe is a Christian writer and appealing to Christian readers and I seem to recall some kerfuffle about the title, that maybe some people wouldn't want to read the book because of the word "fail" in the title. And yet the Bible is filled with individuals who failed and her point is that they needed to fail to be successful or that they were successful in spite of or because of their failure.

Just reflect on that for a moment because you know it's true. We do learn through mistakes and often learn more and better because of mistakes. And if you don't believe me--and you have no reason to do so even if in your heart of hearts you really do--you can believe these folks who tell us that learning is optimized when we fail 15% of the time. It's also called the Eighty-Five Percent Rule for Optimal Learning.

How do mere mortal teachers measure that on a day-to-day basis? Hey, they know. They know which kids are breezing through their work and so not really learning anything new. They know the kids who are making mistakes and gutting it out to figure it out. They know the kids who are making mistakes and believe their lives are over and the kids who just don't care. Apathy is a completely different topic, and that blog post is to come.

Now I circle back to those teachers who encourage their students through their mistakes, who help them understand they've made a mistake and it is not the end of the world. They are the teachers who permit students to retake a test or redo an assignment because the teacher's emphasis is on the learning, not on the grade.

The colossal and complex challenge for teachers and students alike is that we send mixed messages to and through the classroom. Yes, we want you to learn to learn and we want you to learn through your mistakes but we have a curriculum to follow so fail faster and learn faster and make fewer mistakes or just accept your crappy grade and get left behind. And that, of course, helps contribute to apathy because if the teacher doesn't care, why should the student?

Learning from business, and wrapping this up
Business coaches, leaders, and other gurus all are about failing forward. John Maxwell built an industry around the concept.

Failing forward is about learning from mistakes and intuitively recognizing that making mistakes comes with innovation, comes with ideation, comes with learning. We know the 409 and the WD-40 stories, all the quippy and emotional stories of those who were deemed failures or had failures and became success stories. Most of us just want our students to understand place value, be able to capitalize words correctly, and know how to use a period. Even so, we can learn something from business.

Pulling from The Ten Most Important Tips for Failing Successfully, I think we might encourage our students to think about learning, making mistakes, and failure thusly:
  1. Go ahead and be upset, angry, or whatever you feel. Feel the feels. And then move on.
  2. Move on because that mistake or failure of that assignment or test does not make you a failure. You had a bad day, you didn't prepare, you couldn't remember something. Figure out what went awry and figure out how to do better next time.
  3. Let it go.
  4. Don't try to blame the homework or the test or the temperature in the room or your computer or your pen or pencil or that low-level hum that comes from somewhere or anything else. See #2.
  5. Ask for help if you think you need but only after you're sure you can't figure it out on your own or with help from friends. Some teachers call this some variation of "Three, Then Me." 
I had students who would not ask for help because they thought I would think less of them. When I approached a student who was failing and told that student to come to me so we could figure out how to help him succeed, I thought he was going to keel over. From that moment on, I told students that asking for help was a sign of true intelligence--at least by my definition and in my mind--because it indicates when we're aware of our limitations and it indicates a willingness to learn.

I still think we need to do a better job of crafting assignments and assessments that allow for failure, maybe even encourage failure, though that's probably going too far. Even so, growth mindset reminds us that failure isn't a permanent condition. It seems clear that failure is an option for optimal learning.