Instead of Framing 'Failure' As a Positive, Why Not Just Use Positive Words?

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By Rolin Moe

In recent months, authors, school districts, and big thinkers have promoted failure as a valuable experience for young people, specifically students. The premise behind this argument could be valuable, as evidence exists showing students do best when they have space to wrestle and struggle when engaged in trial and error, design-based or problem-based learning. These research-defined terms and approaches have a long and successful history in educational practice and outcomes.

But if that’s the case, why are we pushing the use of such a loaded word like failure in our societal discourse on education? What does using a negative term such as failure as a way of indicating positive traits do to students and schools?

Failure, in education as well as general society, is a negative word. To fail means there is finality in being unable to meet standards or objectives for a task. Whereas in general society there is a dichotomy between success and failure, in education there is a spectrum. To not meet all expectations in business (except perhaps in the “fail fast” tech industry model) may be deemed a failure, and one from which to reconvene and try again, whereas in education the endeavor is not a failure but a space between full success and failure, one from which to reconvene and try again, in the spirit of effort. Failure is a foundational element of assessment in education, the letter F as important to the spectrum as the letter A.

Educational psychologist Alfie Kohn makes several compelling arguments against the failure ethos in a recent article in The Atlantic. Kohn questions both the notion that schools and society are sterilized for childhood ease, and questions whether failure has psychological benefit or is only a simplistic buzz word. According to Kohn, “What’s most reliably associated with success are prior experiences with success, not with failure. Although there are exceptions, the most likely consequence of having failed at something is that a child will come to see himself as lacking competence. And the result of that belief is apt to be more failure.”

This shows a discrepancy between the pedagogical methods to encourage discovery and trial in children with what is sold as failure-as-good. Rather than attempting to make failure fit as a positive, focusing on discovery methodologies while removing symbols of negativity can accomplish the same goals as advocated by failure enthusiasts, but with a greater benefit.

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The importance of discovery methodologies and a positive approach to environment in educational sectors has an important and powerful ally: Finnish education scholar and theorist Yrjo Engestrom. In 1998, Engestrom worked with a middle school in a low-income area to help faculty reflect on their practices in an effort to create concrete mechanisms for change to better meet the needs of their student body, through a design research undertaking organized by the University of Helsinki’s Change Laboratory.

Engestrom and his colleagues coordinated a number of discussion sessions for staff and faculty at the school, providing no other objective than a space to talk constructively about daily teaching practices geared toward concrete mechanisms. The teachers’ ideas on what constituted ideal education outcomes differed with their daily practice, so they embarked on implementing a final project where each student would produce a concrete artifact to denote their learning. The project provided students with a capstone for their experience, and allowed the teachers an opportunity to document the learning journey.

But the learning journey was not only for students. As Engestrom’s discussion sessions noted, teachers were caught up in a cycle of describing their students in negative terms: How would some of the students labeled lazy and apathetic complete such a project if they had never shown any inclination to care about school? Engestrom noted in the research that the discussion was an example of a “latent contradiction,” where students were lazy, but only when presented with projects inside the school system. Such contradictions, according to Engestrom, will not be fixed by isolating and abstracting the problem for analysis and data, but rather through a process called expansive learning, which involves questioning assumptions, modeling behaviors and experimenting with various models. In essence, the teacher roundtable discussions were as much an example of expansive learning as the final projects were for the students; teachers were forced to wrestle with their latent contradictions in a manner similar to students wrestling with their final project.

As teachers questioned their assumptions regarding student effort, they began questioning the manner in which they spoke of students. Without addressing the point of language specifically, teachers began using positive language to describe student effort and ability. Over the course of the roundtables, the amount of positive language used to describe students increased eight-fold.

Negative talk did remain in the discussions, but the positive discussion was an expansion of teacher language and enrichment. The experience was not isolated from the roundtables or the final project; what had happened was a cultural shift within the school where assumptions and contradictions were challenged and met with positive interaction.

Engestrom’s work here and in other venues stresses that one cannot abstract the change in language from the rest of the project; it all exists as a community and as a learning event situated in time and space. But the importance of positive language within how society conceptualizes learning is evident for the growth of student potential and learning. Students were not coddled in the above project; more to it, students were challenged and pushed to higher levels than the curriculum mandated. The mix of authentic exercise, scaffolding and positive attitudes led to their success.

This mixture of expansive practice and positive attitudes is not unprecedented. Paula Denton at the Northeast Foundation for Children, author of The Power of Our Words, has advocated the importance of positive language within the classroom, noting that our use and application of language remains consistent whether we are using it in or outside the classroom, so change is evident in our entire existence and not segregated or abstracted. For Denton, language has meaning in our society, and the manner in which we fashion it can solidify rather than create ambiguity. Denton’s book advocates for teachers to mean what they say and for the meaning to be central and without ambiguity. From this perspective, why use failure for a positive when it has an established negative connotation?

Discussion of failure is largely a discussion about challenge, about scaffolding, about providing a place where the right answer might not come the first time, and depending on the project and subject it shouldn’t, but where the student can learn from their mistakes and build forward. However, as Engestrom and Denton show in their research, the manner in which we engage needs to be positive rather than negative, measurable rather than intangible and based on the notion of grit. As longtime K-12 teacher Joe Bower noted, the argument for grit is an argument blaming external factors rather than focusing on internal, social and structural challenges. Focusing back on creating environments of discovery and positive interaction can create the same opportunities for students that failure advocates wish to see, but without the negative connotations and outcomes.

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Rolin Moe is an educator, a researcher, a speaker, a writer, a consultant and an instructional designer.

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