Sisyphus Rationalizing Sisyphus

Sisyphus Rationalizing Sisyphus

On September 17 my essay on the failure of *fail better* as an educational construct, Rationalizing Sisyphus, was published at Hybrid Pedagogy.  Originally the piece was requested by another outlet, and Becca Connelly was instrumental in taking the ideas I have worked with for almost 2 years, helping fit them into a 1000 word flow.  When the requesting party failed to rematerialize, Hybrid Pedagogy was happy to step in and work with the piece for its journal, and I was fortunate to have Jessica Knott and Phillip Edwards working as editors and bringing my piece to fruition.

This is my second essay taking a critical perspective on the failure-as-good mantra gaining more and more traction in educational discourse, and like the previous writing at MindShift, it has seen a lot of eyeballs and resulted in some pretty strong criticism.  Interestingly, for the most part both praise and criticism has been passive, favorites and retweets or comments such as that was well written, however…  There have also been passionate responses putting my thoughts into crosshairs, though in those instances I feel the intent of my article was missed as it is a critical analysis of a movement rather than a takedown of any localized learning environments.  

Why do I write about the cultural failure movement in education?  Alfie Kohn did a pretty masterful job on this topic last month and was skewered despite having considerable research on his side…how are 1000 words in an essay going to plant a flag in any discussion?  When my MindShift article was met with national derision and hate mail, I figured I was on a pulse but was uncertain where the vitriol had come from…my critical writing was nothing new, but being critical of good failure hit a nerve.  From there, and from analyzing Samuel Beckett as both an historical figure as well as a poster boy for Silicon Valley brought me back to educational psychology and the personal aspect of transformation, which is where the thesis of my essay rests:  failure is wholly personal, and that is fine for Richard Branson to celebrate and Samuel Beckett to wallow in but it is not fine for educational discourse to praise as an Ideal.

Yet the article did not seem to challenge the thinking of people who already believe failure to be a positive.  One friend and colleague whom I admire greatly noted on Facebook that my essay was well-articulated and reasoned but he still did not agree, and provided no reason for disagreement other than that kids were afraid of failure and wanted to be safe and that was stifling and supporting rote education practices.  I took a long road to answer, but it was the last part of my answer that has stuck with me:

I see the failure narrative as an abdication of our responsibilities as educators, passing the buck to the student and filling them with self-help jiggery pokery in lieu of really engaging the system. Tech solutions address symptoms and too often work for those already doing fine and further marginalizes those on the edges. Fail better is a signifier example.

I am a postmodernist; failure means many things…but there is a dominant educational meaning, as our educational system is built on failure as a foundational part of assessment and matriculation.  To suddenly say we need to change this definition and empower learners through not being afraid of failure is well-intentioned but short-sighted and detrimental.  I can’t say whether education is a public good or a private one, but I know I got into education because I believe in its power for transformation and social justice.  Good Failure ignores the history of educational literature and it bolsters a system of inequality.  When we promote failure, we are shirking from our responsibility as stewards of the transformative power of education, no matter the feel-good self-help we prescribe.  Fail better, growth mindset, hang in there, don’t be afraid…the pressure to change is pushed away from the instructor/the institution/the system and put directly in the hands of the learner.  Learners who traditionally do well handle it well.  Some others unexpectedly handle it well too.  And those traditionally marginalized are worse off for the experience.

Maybe it’s unfair that I pick on Carol Dweck’s Mindset, though the renaissance of #growthmindset and subsequent research with strong ties to #failbetter is linked to the re-release of *growth mindset* to the masses, shortly after Timothy Ferris’ manipulation if Samuel Beckett went viral.  This summer, countless school districts, colleges and universities encouraged their teachers to read 2012’s Mindset as part of professional development, and such reading has turned into engaging Angela Duckworth’s metrics on grit, or interviews with Elon Musk or Richard Branson or Timothy Ferris.  How does such development affect any of the structures that have created the inequitable education system of today?  What this PD does is encourage teachers to tell students to be more positive as they work in a system built in stark opposition to anything beyond assessment and matriculation, celebrate those moments when students share their triumphs, and have a clear conscience for those students who did not fail better who fall through the cracks.  Wouldn’t those energies be better spent reading Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, or hooks’ Teaching to Transgress, or Sarason’s The Skeptical Visionary, or Papert’s Mindstorms…educators addressing education. Wouldn’t it be better if our efforts took a hard look at the systems we inhabit, dedicating energies to working to improve those conditions rather than filling classroom bulletin boards and flipped lectures with sound bite mumbo jumbo?  Wouldn’t we be providing better for our students if our goal was for everyone to achieve an A through transformative learning rather than heralding those who fail because they failed better?

Failure may be wholly personal, but when students fail it is the responsibility of the environment and the community those students engage.  Let’s take that responsibility seriously by challenging the way we do things and working to provide the apparatuses necessary so all students are learning and transforming, and not waste our time with slogans and pitch and pith.  Otherwise, the appropriate Beckett quote would be There’s man for you — blaming on his boots the fault of his feet.


Posted on: September 17, 2015admin

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