Failure as a Partner to Success

Allison Isbell & Margaret Paul
Student Artist Max Zinman, '20, adapts a well-known M.C. Escher drawing into
an exercise in fatalistic thinking and self-sabotage. Look closely to see how
he has revised the meaning of this piece.
 
Dear Families:
 
Failure is not something we often like to dwell on. As a mom of 3 boys I have not often found myself on the sidelines of games or on the bench at the playground talking about all the ways that my boys have failed, all that they have not accomplished. We just don’t do it. Instead we focus on performance, success, achievement--the hooks upon which we hope they might hang their burgeoning sense of confidence and self
 
As parents and students we are situated in a societal context that equates success with outcome: with grades, test scores, rankings. And, thus, failure is viewed at odds with success--as a shortcoming, deficiency, limitation, defeat.
 
Mask: This sculpture was conceptualized as a consideration of dual identities. During
the process of firing in the kiln it cracked around the edges. Initially, the student
sculptor was disappointed that the piece didn't work as planned, but upon reflection,
came to value the cracks as an element that deepened and expanded her original concept.
 
But what if we began to view failure in its various forms not as limiting, but as the necessary ingredient that drives success and gives it unique value, substance, and power? What if we recognize failure as a partner to success, rather than its rival?
 
I propose that we take on an expansive definition of failure: rather than allowing it to represent the absence of something--not knowing, not reaching, not achieving--the experience of failure in its various forms should instead be shorthand for risk taking, imagining, testing, modeling, iterating.
 
Math: Artifacts of mathematical processes are situated around the edges of our
math classrooms--daily representations of the iterative thinking of our students.
 
How we frame failure also affects the way we frame our own personal narratives. In the cycle of our school year, we are at a moment in time where students can understand the efforts, processes, and products of the work they have done as iterative, dynamic, in motion--or, conversely, they can  see their work as static, immovable, fixed.
 
So, how do we help our students analyze their perceived failures in ways that are productive, rather than self-defeating?  How do we help them make that transformative shift and begin to view failure as an essential ingredient for school success? And finally, how do we help them take up experiences of failure in ways that give rise to self-determination, responsibility and agency?
 
Eletroscope: Student physicists built electroscopes to investigate the photoelectric
effect (which is how solar panels work). This photo precedes testing: students are
hoping that UV-C light will "move" the tinsel pieces. When you next see a student
physicist from the Modern Physics class, ask them how this experiment went!
 
In our classrooms, in our conversations, and in our feedback to students we are working to value the iterative, expansive processes of reviewing, revising, revisiting, refining. Through practice, with work, and over time we are orienting students toward “try again,” “think through,” “assess” and “analyze.”
 
I ask you to join us in helping your students uncover the great potential that lies beneath perceived failures. Help them move from frustration to places of productive engagement by analyzing and naming parts of their work that are going well, and areas where they can revise and refine their processes. Guide them through the following questions:
 
What can I do differently this time that might change the outcome?
 
Watercolor: Originally this artist intended to paint a singular watercolor piece. However,
she was frustrated by each attempt, and thus ended up with many iterations. In the end,
she cut and spliced her favorite sections from each version, and by pushing through her frustration created a piece that is much stronger than her original concept.
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