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

| May 28, 2014 | 32 Comments
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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.

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.

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

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  • Chainsmoke

    Semantics 101
    Encouragement acknowledgement of effort involved in success or an alternative outcome. Failure needs to be described given parameters just like any other concept at the start if the excercise.
    If you never do anything you are never going to fail.
    Call failure ice cream it’s how you present it.
    My two cents.

    • chalkjockey

      You failed to do anything other than fail.

  • Joshua Raymond

    I wrote “I Want My Kids to Fail” because I want my kids to fail. Too often they are protected from failure by well-meaning teachers, but this also means they don’t learn important skills. Others may frame it in nicer words, but ‘failure’ is the essential concept. http://rochestersage.org/2012/03/05/i-want-my-kids-to-fail/

  • http://balancedtech.wikispaces.com/ BalancEdTech

    Can’t we do both at the same time? Here are more questions related to failure as a discussion topic.

    http://balancedtech.wikispaces.com/FAILure

  • chalkjockey

    Obfuscation.

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  • myzenways

    In educational vocabulary, fail is not only a negative word, it is perhaps the most negative word. Trying to put a spin on it is futile in my opinion. Of course I want my child challenged, and to come up against things they have to go after again and again before they master it, but not succeeding in your first attempt isn’t failure. I agree with you that the word conveys a sense of finality and I also feel that it has such negative connotations that it is too easily internalized as a reflection on the student’s worth and not just their efforts.

    • Michael Kearns

      I never failed in school but I know the kids who did were having trouble at home too. Being a failure at school on top of that probably wasn’t helpful.

  • http://xeado.net/ yessiralph001

    when people getting fail they will be disappointed and their mind will be washed out from bad thing and negative thoughts. I am passed it from this kind of time and that’s why i know how people feel when they are fail.
    http://goo.gl/GZ2t5G

  • cetj98168

    Instead of fail, why not call it training? You get the same test over until you master it.

  • DSL

    Focusing on what to call it instead of what to do about it is the biggest failure of all. Next.

    • Dan Willis

      The focus is on what to do about the potentially detrimental movement that already exists. I call that a win.

  • Philippe Couillez

    Fact of life: there are great chances that you will fail at something during your life, fail at your job, in your sentimental life, in raising your kids, in making goof financial choices, etc… Stop that BS of sugarcoating everything and let people fail. They will stand up again and retry. We should not make failure sounds like it is nothing because all is good, not all is good. But we should tech to stand up again and again until you succeed.

  • Yasunori Tsuchida

    I prefer “Duuuuude” (warbling the u sound) which expresses it all (acknowledgment, camaraderie, sympathy, amusement, encouragement) without seeming judgemental. Translation: “My fine compatriot, while your recent effort was clearly an egregious misadventure, I was nevertheless highly entertained and wish you a speedy recovery on your remarkable injuries”

    • Michael Kearns

      Duuuuuuuude! Haha!

  • Steve Cunningham

    I failed — did not get tenure at a research university because my research record was not strong enough. So I (just barely!) got a job at a very good small school and built a very good teaching and professional service career. I felt like a failure for a while, but my colleagues and friends got me over it.

  • RonzoL61

    One should learn from their failures. They should try figure out what it was they did wrong, and fix it. Failure is nothing to be proud of. It’s nothing to look up to, and it’s certainly nothing to emulate!

  • DocNordic

    Ah, another doctoral student selling himself as an expert and NPR helping. Who are they kidding?

    • myzenways

      Ah, another guy who didn’t do his research before slamming someone who’s blogging for NPR while he only gets to leave meaningless and negative comments on articles he probably didn’t even bother to read. The author isn’t a student anymore, he is a widely published researcher and noteworthy speaker in the world of education. This blog led me to many other thoughtfully written perspective pieces from Dr. Moe and additional info into his work and background. Education needs more passionate advocates for kids who are working in theory and curriculum design, not just buzz word business types. NPR needs more commenters who address content instead of airing their personal insecurities by taking cheap (and in this case inaccurate) punches at the writers.

      • DocNordic

        If you check at the beginning of the piece he was listed as a doctoral student.

    • Michael Kearns

      So you’re an expert on being an a hole eh Doc?

  • zig0044

    One danger of sugarcoating it is that the children protected from the essence of failure will eventually experience it in real life, and will be unprepared of the bluntness and even harshness life will present it. Especially concerning certain people who have no intention of sugarcoating the consequences of one’s actions. And there are those who would do worse than just being blunt and harsh about one’s failures.

    • Dan Willis

      I don’t think it’s sugarcoating to frame a child’s natural exploration and attempts to master something as just that rather than “failures”

  • Peet

    Failure is simply one of the strongest heuristics available. There are others, but few are as visceral as the flop sweat of failure. Further, when gradual advancement of expertise is required, upping the level of difficulty until you fail is a time tested strategy for success.
    Crying about the semantics of it is, as the first poster mentioned, obfuscation. Successful people know what failure is because they have experienced it first hand, Either by individual effort or by team dynamics.

  • BrambleTree

    Learned a saying at Weight Watchers (of all places) that I have used with my kids and their friends. “There’s no failure, only feedback.” Sometimes that feedback is “What you did there- yeah, didn’t work.” Reframing is sometimes a good thing.

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  • Michael Kearns

    I was raised in a strict family and taught you would succeed at some things and fail at others, don’t cry too long or celebrate too much just get on with it. Failure didn’t bother me and neither did the word, but I suppose if different words would help more students succeed, and that’s what these guys get paid to figure out, then call it whatever will do the most good.

  • Noah

    Is it just me or is this article vague and badly written? I keep waiting for specific examples where are none.

    • Dan Willis

      One of the most cited pieces I’ve read in a long time, full of examples. I’m guessing it’s you.

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