Recovering From Failure

The New York Times Learning Network blog has an interesting lesson on the topic of failure, with some good examples from sports, business, the arts and other fields.

It also asks students to consider some interesting questions about failure in their own lives and those of people they know.

Can failure be useful? Can you think of examples, from your own life or someone else’s, when it has led to something positive?

How is failure defined and dealt with in your family, your school, the activities you do outside of school, among your friends and in your community? Which of those definitions and responses to failure seem fairest or best to you? Why?

What can be done to avoid failure? Should people try to avoid it?

What is “failure” and what is “success”? Who decides?

Missing, however, is any real consideration of failure as it applies to school. What happens if you fail the midterm in English 7? What recovery options do you have for getting a bad score on the SOLs?* Suppose you get a 1 on an AP test?

We really don’t deal well with the concept of failure in school, especially in helping students learn from it and discovering options for recovery. Maybe in sports, possibly the arts or other “non-academic” contests. But for most kids, failing a class or a grade means they will repeat it.

But the most likely scenario is that they get to cover the same content, often using the same materials and teaching techniques, often in the compressed time frame of summer school. And usually with only slightly better results, not anything we might call “success”.

Doing the same thing in the same way hoping for different results.

Is that how people recover from failure in real life?


*For those outside of Virginia, that’s the acronym for our spring standardized tests.

Innovation Requires Failure (and we don’t do failure)

I don’t remember the first three Educon conferences having a theme (certainly not the meaningless alliteration used by most educational conferences) but this time around, at the very least, the word of the year seemed to be “innovation”.

Friday night at the Franklin and at the Sunday morning session panelists were asked to reflect on the concept and the term seemed to be woven through many of the conversations during the rest of the weekend.

While many of the panelists and others at the conference offered some great insight, I’m still not sure I understand what innovation really is.

Is it unique? Or do you call anything new and unlike what we’re used to “innovation”? Can anyone who does things differently from what is considered normal be called innovative? Where is the line between being innovative and just plain nuts?

Maybe the concept is similar to that of creativity: very subjective, and the degree to which someone or something fits in the category is in the eye of the beholder.

Certainly from the people on all sides of the education reform debate we hear plenty of talk about “innovation” and “creativity” being two skills we want our students to learn, and traits we want teachers and administrators to have.

As the concept applies to education and teaching, one of the best points was made by Kathleen Cushman, author of Fires in the Mind, during the Sunday morning panel when remarked that she has trouble with term innovation since for students it looks a lot like learning.

Anyway, regardless how you define it, I can’t help but wonder if our educational system even wants to teach kids to be innovative in the first place.

Because, people we think of as being innovative will often talk about their many failures before they made the big breakthrough for which they received the recognition.

However, when it comes to school, we don’t handle failure well.

Teaching kids to be innovative would require encouraging them to experiment, try new things, many of which will fail, and then helping them learn how to recover.  That is not how our cookie-cutter, test-driven system works.

So, the bottom line to all this rambling is that I still have more questions than answers when it comes to the concept of being innovative.

But I’m very sure it has little to do with what we currently think of as school.

Too Big Not To Fail?

Some ideas from a recent post by Clay Shirky have been running around in my head for more than a week, although I’m not sure have enough of a grasp on them for this rant to make complete sense.

He starts with a book by an anthropologist and historian titled The Collapse of Complex Societies in which the author theorizes that past civilizations collapsed because they became too complex.

Complex societies collapse because, when some stress comes, those societies have become too inflexible to respond. In retrospect, this can seem mystifying. Why didn’t these societies just re-tool in less complex ways? The answer Tainter gives is the simplest one: When societies fail to respond to reduced circumstances through orderly downsizing, it isn’t because they don’t want to, it’s because they can’t.

Shirky sees a direct connection between those collapsing societies and some of the complex organizations with which he consults, particularly media companies that are largely in denial about the collapse of their traditional corporate models.

The focus of his entry is business, of course, but I wonder if Shirky’s thesis could also apply to public institutions that grow too large and inflexible to respond quickly to changes.

Like American education, an increasingly complex system that seems to define the concept of “too inflexible to respond”.

In discussing bureaucracies, Shirky notes that “it’s easier to make a process more complex than to make it simpler, and easier to create a new burden than kill an old one”.

That observation might very well apply to our overly-large school district, where we seem to spend a lot of time trying to write regulations to cover every possible contingency while discouraging individuals from experimenting with new ideas.

So, am I being too pessimistic in thinking that our educational bureaucracy (both local and not) is fast approaching that point where it’s too large to re-tool in less complex ways?

Have we grown too big not to fail?

NCLB is Working!

Which is why more than one-third of US schools were considered “failures” for the 2007-08 academic year under the AYP requirements of the law.

That’s 28% more than in the previous year and Indiana, Nebraska, and New York haven’t reported their data yet.

Nearly 20% of all schools have missed their goals for two or more years and have earned penalties that go beyond the failure tag, an increase of 13%.

Yep. Very successful.

We’re well on our way to the ultimate goal of 100% by 2014.