Failure IS an Option
Source: Rick Ackerly
In Education, failure IS an option, and a pretty good one at that.
Fear of failure is not a big issue for most kids going off to first grade. Their life is not yet framed with questions of success and failure. Even after a year in kindergarten where their mission was to make friends, create, do fun things, and learn as much as they can, the concept of failure isn't really on the brain, much.
Unfortunately, most schools try to change this. Our culture is obsessed with success and failure in the context of a pyramid model of society, where some few will make it to the top and many will be left at the bottom. In our schools, this obsession generates a number of myths which result in (surprise, surprise) a few winners, many losers, and a lot of mediocrity. A few people will become self-disciplined, self-critical, learners who are comfortable in their own skin, good at working with others and practiced in thinking creatively. The majority will fall short and handle their inadequacies as best they can.
At the level of national policy both "No Child Left Behind" and "The Race to the Top" are (obviously) trapped inside the pyramid--right along with the rest of us. National and local education policies are powered by the same myths that drive with us to school every day. Myths like:
- Nothing succeeds like success.
- Natural ability is a predictor of success (and vice versa).
- Success is about getting to the top first.
- Classmates are competition; collaboration is cheating. (an unspoken one)
- You can achieve success by leading with your strengths and hiding your weaknesses.
- If we focus kids on measuring up to standards we will maximize their education.
- There is a trade-off between self-discovery and standards.
- (Add your own favorite.)
None of these folktales are borne out either by experience or research. Nothing succeeds like grit. Nothing succeeds like courage, connecting with people, mastering collaboration, and trusting in that peculiar combination of strengths and weaknesses that make you your own weird self. In other words, the kindergarteners have it right in the first place. If they come out of school screwed up, it is a pyramid school with parental support that screwed them up.
The children do not start off trapped. Success and failure are adult concepts, and wise educators don't entertain them. Certainly there are a few children with bona fide neurological disabilities, but virtually all children can read, all children can learn to control their impulses and focus, and all children can be good at mathematics. The vast majority of those labeled disabled acquire the label because they didn't reveal themselves capable according to the (time honored) timetable established by school.
What if "learning differences" were a concept honored and embedded in a system of education that was striving for what all kindergartners are originally striving for--to make something of their wonderful, sorry selves. They each learn differently and they know it; they can each make something of themselves, and they feel it. They are in the process of discovering their gifts and none of them are normal.
What if schooling were based on a new set of myths like those in the last 3 paragraphs? This alternative set of statements may or may not be "TRUE." Some of them may also be myths. However, these myths are much more likely to produce an educated citizenry and a much larger number of happy, successful people than the myths of the pyramid model.
So what would be more new myths we could craft for better schools? Here's a nice one: I'm okay just the way I am. Speaking for myself, I can attest to the fact that it is not, objectively speaking, true. But I don't need to go on about that here. Let's just say, I have made many mistakes and failed a lot.
It is, nonetheless, true (and I have forty-four years of anecdotal evidence to back it up) that if you act as if "I'm okay just the way I am" is true for you, you will find inside you the wherewithal to carry on till you finish the race. More importantly, acting as if it is true for other people, is about 75% of what you need to do to bring out the best in them.
Rick Ackerly is a nationally recognized educator and speaker with 44 years of experience working in and for schools. With a master's in education from Harvard University, Rick has devoted his career to building thriving learning communities. He has served as headmaster of four independent schools and has been a consultant and coach to teachers, school leaders and parents.
Rick speaks to parent and school groups and presents at numerous education conferences around the country. His articles about education and diversity have appeared in The Independent School, Multicultural Education, Education Week, the New York Times. Rick publishes a new essay each week on his blog www.rickackerly.com. His first book, The Genius in Children: Bringing out the Best in Your Child is available at Amazon.com and Books Inc in San Francisco.