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Should we change the conversation by not using the word “Failure”?

Since I won’t be in class this evening, I wanted to respond to a couple points that Sarah and Anke have made in their latest blog posts, as well as input a couple of my own thoughts into the conversation.

As Anke explains, students likely have a difficult time equating the academic goal of failing with good grades because they have serious concerns about GPAs, scholarships, or what have you. I think that these completely legitimate concerns must be addressed. As individual instructors, it is potentially dangerous to teach our students that risk taking is a worthwhile pursuit because other instructors might have very different thoughts on the matter. We need to be clear that our classrooms are safe learning environments, but other classrooms might not follow the same guiding principles.

I wonder if trying to encourage students to fail is fighting an uphill battle. Sarah and Anke both expressed interest in discussing whether or not a group’s relationship to failure is culturally specific, but whether the struggle with “Failure” is strictly U.S. American or not, we certainly need to address the fact that [most of] our students (and quite likely ourselves as well) do not view failure as a positive pursuit. For me, this leads to a question about language: would it be better (read: faster and more effective) to just re-frame the objective in different terms rather than try to reclaim a word that is loaded down with baggage? When we use phrases like “fail better,” we understand that the goal is risk taking and innovation. What we seem to mean is that we shouldn’t be afraid of failure because new ideas, thoughts, processes, technologies, etc. arise out of testing and development. However, aren’t we then arguing that the multiple iterations that it takes to achieve something more worthwhile are steps in the process rather than failures? And if these steps in the process are not failures because they help lead to the next thought or development, why are we encouraging failure?

Ultimately, we do not want our students to fail in the sense that the word implies. We want them to rethink what failing means. We do not want failure to be in opposition to success. Perhaps it’s just a small linguistical concern, but language is powerful and combating failure’s negative connotation might be a struggle we won’t be able to win over the course of a single semester. I’m pretty sure the capitalistic machine’s notions of failure are going to outweigh our own.

(For the record, I also see the benefit of using the term “failure,” but I think it worthwhile to play devil’s advocate.)

Perhaps a scientist in the classroom can help me with this final point … As educators, we should be trying to constantly improve our approaches and methods. Each new class we teach or assignment we develop is a pedagogical experiment. After an experiment has been completed, do scientists label their results as either success or failure? Shouldn’t we instead avoid connotations and simply discuss our findings and conclusions? Why this obsessive need to classify? Doesn’t every assignment have something salvageable even if it didn’t have the desired or anticipated results?

Innovation and Failure Part II

Alison Carr and Brewster Kahle provide two practical applications of processes that encourage/embrace failure. Of the exercises Carr posits, the most interesting to me were “Assessing ‘Quality of Failure,’” based on Edward Burger’s “Teaching to Fail” and “Try Again, Fail Differently,” based on Peter Elbow’s concept of low-stakes writing.

“Teaching to Fail” subverts the notion that there is such a thing as correct and incorrect by making failure a prerequisite for a good grade. As Carr explains, Berger defines failure as “a willingness to take on and pursue ideas that might not seem entirely ‘safe.’” This exercise is based on the belief that “risk-taking and failure foster imagination and lead to innovation.” He encourages students to share their failures, and 5% of the grade is based on “Quality of failure.” (Whatever that means! See below.)

If Berger subverts the notion of correct=good grade, failure=bad grade; then Elbow rejects the dichotomy altogether. As we read last semester, Elbow suggests that in order for student writing to improve, teachers need to create environment in which writing is disassociated from receiving red marks on the page. In Carr’s exercise, the idea is that writing is never correct (check mark) or incorrect (red mark), but constantly in flux. As she says, the focus is “not on how to say it better but on how to say it differently.” This semester, my students participated in an archive-building activity with the Lower East Side Tenement Museum which required them to write a short vignette that had a limit of 1500 characters. Similar to this process, it was fascinating to see them have to figure out what to cut and how to tighten their language so that they could upload their piece. Assigning students to tweet, it seems to me, would also have a similar effect.

Here are some questions these teaching models brought up for me:

  1. How do we assess failure? Is it in relationship to success? Or can you assess it alone? (As Berkun says, failing alone is not enough to lead to innovation; it requires the ability to extract the lessons learned from failure and apply them to new situations.)
  2. How might we as teachers measure that extraction and re-application of lessons learned through failure? It seems to me that that, actually, should be the metric of learning.
  3. How do or would your students react to these assignments? Would they freak since it subverts their entire experience up until this point? What types of scaffolding could you put in place to help them feel comfortable with an assignment in which failure was to be valued, not feared?

Last, yesterday’s very interesting lecture by Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, got me thinking even more about innovation and failure. Here we see a man willing to go a long way in pursuit of wacky ideas. The non-profit has now made millions of books, movies, software, music, TV shows, websites and more free and open to the public. Kahle also referenced new pet projects including bit-coin and affordable housing; two aspects that don’t seem to have much to do with the rest of the archive. He spoke repeatedly of delegating; whether working with a Columbia University new music archivist to assess the importance of/create taxonomies for music preservation, or working with volunteers to trust them with the work of searching for whether video titles are currently available for purchase (and therefore should not be added to the archive.) In many ways, his approach and story reflects many of the  innovators described by Berkun.

Furthermore, his entire project, The Internet Archive, is the result of the failure (as he sees it) of the National Archives and the Library of Congress to collect, preserve, and create public access to intellectual material in digital formats. Kahle expects that he will be perpetually begging for forgiveness. This assumption that he will “fail” (get in trouble, do something wrong,) means that he doesn’t feel the need to constantly ask for permission. Some of the best parts of his talk were when he described mis-steps along the way and what he’s learned from other failures. For example, the fire of the Library at Alexandria told him to make many copies. Further, he’s making those copies in all types of different formats, with the full expectation that 90% of those (my made-up number) will fail to preserve this material. But if you try a gazillion different things, something is bound to stick.

Questions that Kahle made me consider:

  • What are the ramifications of this? Could it ever become damaging to get so used to/proud of failure? By never asking permission, but merely taking down materials when people complain, Kahle is railroading the (economic, social) aspects of shame that have historically protected intellectual property. In many ways, the digital age has meant that we no longer have these feelings of shame around stealing/being caught “stealing” intellectual property.
  • Should we see the integration of the pedagogy of failing forward as a feminist act? What are the gendered ramification of changing the culture of classrooms in this way? In Berkun’s lecture, we saw a group of innovators and were asked what they all had in common. My initial reaction was that they were all men; an observation that Berkun glossed over, along with the observation that they all have “bad hair.” Kahle embodies the sort of devil-may-care, breaking the rules personality associated with masculinity. Last year there was an article entitled “The Confidence Gap” in the Atlantic about why women fail once they move beyond the classroom into the real world; they expect that doing what they’re told will lead them to success. It worked in school; so it should work in the workplace! But, as Berkun and Kahle show, this training does not lead to innovation. The author argues that women get left behind since they lack the confidence to fail and to ask for raises/promotions, etc.

 

On Failure

In her post, Sarah questions Scott Berkun’s assertion that the anxieties surrounding failure are uniquely American. I don’t think I can answer that questions of course, but I have been thinking about such issues as I’ve been getting to know this culture and especially its educational system over the past few years. And, like Sarah, I am a perfectionist who finds that this trait is very hard to shake, so these texts certainly resonate with me. As a teacher, one of my goals is to get students to let go of the fear to fail, and, if at all possible, to let go of their focus on and anxiety about grades. But truth is that for them so much depends on their final grades and GPA. Admission, financial aid, fellowships, etc.

Even though Allison Car wants to focus not so much on external evaluation and assessment, ie. failing a course, as on failure as an “affect-bearing concept”, i.e. “being a failure,” I think the need for external praise and the importance of assessment is such an integral part here, not just of the educational system but the culture as a whole, and plays a huge role in why failure and “being a failure” is such a shattering experience. And, in a way, being able to take risks and be creative as a student is a luxury, something you probably would not dare think about if your GPA and financial aid is on the line when you’re just a number in an education factory. A lot of factors play a role, and I don’t think you can pinpoint the exact differences between different ways failure plays a role in different societies, but I do know that in the Dutch school system everyone fails at some point. And that’s totally fine. Grading is different. Only 50-60 percent of students usually pass a course (in higher ed mostly, secondary and elementary school are a bit different but there’s a difference in how they’re structured too, with three different levels of high school and no public/private–happy to elaborate on that in class). So almost everyone fails once, or twice, or more. No big deal. Then there’s the question of (access to) resources of course. Here, for many students failing a course or lagging behind means an increased financial strain on the student or family. In a system with only public schools, equal access and quality of education, there’s some wiggle room to fail and try again. Life doesn’t end there. Oh, and there are no class rankings, honors rolls, etc, all a result of the way in which secondary and higher Ed is structured in The Netherlands, which I think reduces the pressure and competition among peers.

I am still thinking about the differences here, why it sometimes seems it’s either/or here–either you’re a success, or you’re a failure–and why so many people have internalized this as well as the idea that it’s to the individual’s own fault or merit. But there are two other, more concrete things that I’d like to say about today’s readings, and that’s that I fully agree with what two articles in the Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy’s Teaching Fails columns say, namely, that there’s a huge amount of student orthodoxy, and that in English/literature classes, you often find yourself spending more time navigating the technology (ie. finding the same passage on your e-reader) than on the actual text under discussion. The article’s author is waiting for a tool that makes the text more “ready to hand” than current technology. I also sometimes feel that with all these different devices students carry, the different letter sizes they use, etc, etc, it’s hard to be on the same page, literally. There are a few of us who teach the kind of massive literature surveys I teach, and I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

 

Innovation and Failure Post Part 1

This week’s readings all consider elements of failure, from experiences of design failure to implementation and follow-up failure to the emotional experience of failing and the fear (or reality) of becoming “a failure,” and the ways in which the legacy of failure is written out of the record.

As a one-time perfectionist turned proud, loud, and frequent fail-er, I was excited to focus on these readings. Further, as a teacher who’s more interested in students being creative than in their being right, I was eager for tips on how to create a classroom environment in which failure is understood to be OK. I want to talk a bit about Scott Berkun’s lecture, Alison Carr’s, post, and the lecture by Brewster Kuhle (founder of the Internet Archive) that some of us saw yesterday.

Scott Berkun makes some important points. First, process is integral to understanding innovation. Sort of like how this blog post was supposed to be up on Saturday rather than Tuesday, the point is that when ideas that are mulling around in our heads, we have a much greater chance of putting them together in new and unexpected ways.This takes time, practice, patience, and guts.

Process also, I might add, requires down time with no new stimuli. Every time I have a free second, I check my phone, the news, facebook. For workers in open office plans, there’s always something exciting going on. We have a million new ideas buzzing around us all of the time, which means that we (or at least I) never give my brain the chance to do its own work in reorganizing these ideas. This is where developing good habits come in. See below.

Another of Berkun’s points is that most of this mulling time is boring, and often leads nowhere. Further, some of the most creative people are willing than most to spend longer entertaining outlandish ideas–the ones that seem most likely to fail. Good managers give their staff time to pursue those outlandish ideas.

In the end, however, failure, along with  process, failure is written out of history. We never see the crappy wooden slums of Rome; never learn about Mac’s “Newton”; only the marble buildings and MacBooks that have (so far) stood the test of time.

Here are some questions to get a conversation started:

  • Both Carr and Berkun suggest that our relationship with failure uniquely American. Do you buy this? Does anyone know about different cultures’ understandings of failure? How do they differ? Have our American notions changed over time? When how and why? (Sorry, I’m an Historian…you can’t just say this stuff.)
  • Berkun talks about the Luddites and the sociological reasons why innovations often take time to be adopted. What are the conditions necessary for adopting new technologies?  What conditions prolong how long it takes?
  • How might our phones/open office plans be used to foster innovative habits rather than inhibit them, as I suggest mine do for me?