Failure Does Not Instruct, Success Does

We’re on a bit of a ‘let’s embrace failure’ trend these days.  Lots of articles across the internets about the benefits of failure, the learning potential, the need for coddled students to experience the wonderfully instructive power of being told they are wrong.  As so often the case, the central thesis comes at us in fairly easy to catch, sensible sounding nuggets of wisdom, which we’ll address in a moment.  More interesting, as usual, is the subtext, and also the actual, usually unstated, intent.  In this case: School is too easy.  People are given too much without needing to work for it.  Pain is not merely instructive, it’s essential to wisdom and moral order.  

So, a few Bromides out of the way first.

  1. Yes, it’s true, Failure is a way we learn.  Success has rewards, but ‘learning’ isn’t entirely one of them.  Most learning occurs before success, in the trial and error process, where one is neither winning nor losing, just working.
  2. Yes, it’s true, Failure is not unnatural.  Much of our life is spent fundamentally failing in one way or another.  Only those born with exceptional gifts are denied the experience of struggle that is intimately married to failure.  
  3. Yes, it’s true, Failure creates strength.  Though it’s not exactly a muscular strength.  The strength of failure is in callous, tendon, cartilage.  The strength one gets from failure is the thickened skin of scar.  

But let’s not kid ourselves.  Failure is not so very often the product of natural disaster, or chance, or unanticipated event.  It’s not so often a blind spot, or an absence of essential.  And when it is, one doesn’t really ‘learn’ anything but to move on, around, through.  The failure that we experience confronting the external world is mostly a kind of failure that we go to great lengths to ensure we never have to experience again, or at all.  If the building falls because of an earthquake, we don’t chalk the disaster up to a learning experience.  The building was not designed as some kind of learning experience; it was designed to avoid the failure of falling down.  Perhaps more importantly, the more we know, the more we anticipate failure, the more we do to make sure it doesn’t occur.  The ‘knowledge’ we gain from the failure of disaster is less about skill or fact or detail as it is about resilience, about moving on after the tragedy.

If failure was so very instructive, so very powerful, most of the world would be a hell of a lot more successful.

But the other failure, the failure of school, most often, lies in Character.  We fail because we lose courage.  We fail because we can’t force ourselves through the present moment’s discomfort, or uncertainty, or struggle, or pain – and not because the pain itself is good.  The pain of work is painful.  It’s boredom. It’s tedious repetition.  It’s sacrifice – of time, attention, pleasure.  It’s embrace of struggle.  But none of it is really related to failure.  We embrace all of it because of success.  We embrace struggle to achieve success, and the fact that we fail really has little instructive value.

We know, most of the time, exactly why we have failed.  We failed because we were lazy. We failed because we are stupid.  We failed because we didn’t work hard enough.  Or we failed because we didn’t really care.  We failed because the task was pointless, or stupid, or meaningless.  Often times, our failure is neither a flaw in our character or an instructive step towards future success.  Often times our failure is a product of injustice – of other people’s moral or character failings – and there’s little lesson there except anger or submission.  We fail because the other side cheats.  We failed, quite simply, because the task was impossible, or unfair, or out of our control.

There’s no ‘lesson’ in that.  There’s no strengthening of our skill, just a hardening of our heart.

Kids don’t really learn through failure.  Kids learn through success.  Failure, a good deal of the time, isn’t instructive at all.  Students don’t make mistakes on a math problem and then ‘learn’ the correct answer from the error.  They don’t write a shitty essay and then fix their mistakes.  Any teacher can tell you that kids glance at the grade, ignore the comments, and move on.  If failure were so very instructive, the most effective education would be guided failure, which it most assuredly is not.  Education is guided success.  We reward the students who succeed.  We only punish the students who fail.  We don’t reward them at all for it.  And rarely, rarely is that failure much responsible for how they improve.

I know, from years of experience, not to mention my own intimate friendship with failing, that nearly all students fail because they simply don’t really do the work.  For some, the absence of effort is extreme, and the failure equally severe.  Most teachers will tell you that it takes a lot of work to fail a class.  It takes consistent and persistent absence, because the system is designed to get them working, to keep them succeeding, in however small a capacity.  The threat of failure, and the actual presence of it, is fundamentally, almost universally, an attempt to get students to do the work through fear or suffering.  The threat of failure is not about learning, it’s about motivation.  But does it motivate?  And more importantly, does failure create learning?

Failure does not instruct.  Failure may drive, it may motivate, but even this subtext is wrong.  Because teaching is about instruction.  Students learn through investment, through care, through diligence and concentration.  The goal is to learn and grow.  And failure, however you frame it, is rarely growth.  The threat of failure will motivate a student to invest more time in studying, or writing and revision, or practice, but it really doesn’t motivate a student to actually learn.  Students learn through the success that stands opposite failure.  Our job as teachers is not to instruct students through failure, but to encourage students through success.

The subtext of all these little editorials we keep reading about the spoiling absence of failure aren’t really about learning at all.  They are about character, and if we want our education system to be ‘teaching’ character, we probably ought to start saying so.

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