Some Thoughts On Failure And Struggle

I worry that we’ve really romanticized terms like failure and struggle.

Last week Debbie Donsky dug into some deep questions around failure and its ability to cause a permanent change.  If you have a minute, read her post.   It’s phenomenal.

Like Debbie, I love Katz’s thoughts on Intentional Interruption and discomfort as a way to push learning; however, I really dislike the idea that all learning is somehow connected to failure or struggle.

It’s an old story.

We’ve seen it in movies:

We have conferences and film festivals dedicated to the notion of failing forward.

I’ve even written about it in the past: here AND here!

Old story and wrong story.

While I do agree that there is a lot to be learned from failure, I refuse to believe that it is the best and/or only way to learn.  In fact, I’m more inclined to agree with this Washington Post article that talks about how the failing forward narrative is pushing our most vulnerable students away.

Before we start talking up productive struggle, we ought to think through other alternatives.  Penny Kittle might have said it best:

“When our curriculum is consistently too difficult for the readers we have, we’ll send them on to our colleagues at the next grade level in a worse place than we have received them. I wince at this. I know it’s the truth, having taught seniors for twelve years now, but I blanch at the idea that some of my hardworking, determined colleagues are contributing to the lack of preparedness in my seniors and to their possible failure in college….

I believe this is about motivation, yes, and about an overtired, overtaxed brain. There’s no pleasure in constant confusion, which is exactly the way Allen describes his reading to me. He doesn’t have the capacity for frustration that he needs, gleaned from hours of reading practice, to understand much less enjoy this book.”

Struggle, in the case of Penny’s student, Allen, would add to his difficulties in reading; it would not push him to become a better reader, no matter how much she talked to him about a failing forward.

The more that we talk about how hard learning MUST be, the more that we create “frustration and wasted effort in our personal lives and futility and discrimination in schools.”  I’m not saying that we should always tell our students that learning is fun or, worse still, easy.  I am, however, advocating for a more open approach to learning.  An approach that allows for learning to appear in the form of failure, play, joy, sorrow, etc.

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