We Win Success by Failing

We Win Success by Failing

Note: I wrote this piece as my recent contribution to our Suffolk County STANYS news website, but I'm putting it here, too, because I like it.


I'm bored with talking about success. By any metric, I’ve had the good fortune to enjoy a lot of success in my career as an educator. But I also fail a lot. And I know that I’m not alone. Failure is a significant part of educating kids. I don’t mean kids failing (hopefully that’s pretty diminished), I mean teachers failing to do the things they try to do. Things not working as planned. Mistakes being made. This kind of failure is more than just a thing that happens sometimes, it’s a significant part of the job. And it’s totally normal and expected.

So why do we hide it?

If you look at any public collection of educators, you’ll quickly see that discussion of success is much more common than conversations about failure. Any look at the #eduTwitter-scape or any of the Facebook groups for teachers is basically a wall-to-wall display of success. Kids doing amazing work. Teachers trying new things, and being delighted with the results. Everything working out exactly as planned (or even better than that). Which is lovely, but as far as I'm concerned, it’s not particularly reflective of the reality of teaching. Teaching is hard creative work, and like all hard creative work, people fail a lot.

The issue is even more glaring in science education, where teachers teach a field of endeavor that proceeds by failing. The central role of falsification in the scientific process is so essential that only presenting success not only warps perceptions of reality; it can distort our very understanding of it. And yet, we still pretend like things succeed in our classes more than they fail.

It’s easy to understand why this is the case. Generally speaking, people want to be perceived at their best, and for most people, their “best” is not when things they are trying to do aren’t working. It takes a degree of confidence to be willing to show one’s posterior on a regular basis. But in my experience, giving failure a public perch leads to a level of improvement in practice and product that is just not possible if all you talk about is success. Learning is nothing if not all about correction.

Assuming you agree with the above, the question becomes how to build a place for failure in your public life. I won’t pretend to have all of the answers, but I do have a few ideas that have worked well for me:

1. Keep everything in Beta. Beta testing refers to the practice in technology development wherein a working, imperfect, version of a product is turned over to a large group of people to use. This everyday usage then provides the developers with a list of imperfections that would otherwise remain undiscovered if the developers were the only ones doing the product-testing. This philosophy is easily applied to education. The work that teachers do and the materials they create should live in a state of constant beta testing. By taking the default stance that work is imperfect, there is less discomfort when the imperfections in that work are discovered. Of course, this type of thinking is only helped by a willingness to make your work available to a vast professional learning network under pretty open terms of usage. Fortunately, in the modern era of easy-to-build webspace and free to distribute licensing, it’s trivial to set up a system wherein you can be a perennial beta tester. All it requires is a willingness to do it.

2. Keep a Resume of Failures. I first discovered the concept of the resume of failures when I read this article. The example resumes that it included lead me to put up my own. I think more people should do this, and I hope that doing so on my end leads some of the tens of thousands of people who interact with myself and my digital footprint every year to realize that failing is a large part of why I’ve had the career that I’ve had. Who I am as an educator, and what I do is arguably much more a result of the failures that I've had in my career than it is of my successes[note]I realize that it's a pretty privileged position to be encouraging failure while sitting on a pile of success. At the same time I really do feel that my failures have been much more formative for me than any of my successes[/note].

3. Reflect on failures (and successes). I am a huge fan of reflective practice. My reflection tends to happen in public spaces. I find a lot of value in thinking aloud if for no other reason than that it invites correctives from a maximal number of wise minds. But even if a public airing of your reflective practice isn’t something that appeals to you, the act of reflecting itself is invaluable for learning from your experiences. There are a variety of tools that you can use to help you reflect, ranging from a notebook, a simple .txt file, or something a little more formal like 750Words or a blog. However you do it, the trick is to make sure that you actually stick to a routine of regularly engaging in reflection on the work that you are doing with the understanding that the purpose of that reflection is not to whinge about imperfection, but instead to think about how to improve.

These are three relatively easy ways to build a space for considering failure into your professional life. As always, it might be too much to try to do all three of the above at the same time. But the point isn’t to do everything that’s suggested (or even anything that’s suggested). Instead, it’s to work to make a space in your working life for acknowledging that however good we are as educators, however fortunate we have been in our work, we still fail a lot.

Thanks for reading. Do you also feel like failure is hidden in education? Would you like to let me know why I should care more about success? Drop me a line if you’d like to let me know your thoughts. If you’ve found something of value here, consider supporting the site.

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