Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Literacy of Failure: Failing and Failing Forward

Source: CC Search
Failure is the new buzz word for the classroom.  Just today I read that good classroom apps for the  iPad embrace failure: "this culture of learning from adversity" (Jenny Magiera).  Interestingly, while professing to discuss failure, Magiera is really talking about adversity and success through personalization and differentiation.

Failure and adversity are not the same thing.  Adversity means difficulties or misfortune.  The word carries the connotation that a successful struggle is waged against these difficulties or misfortunes. Adversity is a temporary down.  Ironically, in YA literature, a protagonist's adversity is often caused by adult failures: divorce, neglect, abuse, abandonment, confusion, ineptitude...

Failure, on the other hand, means lack of success.  Implied in failure as descriptor is action something is tried that does not work. Failure is a real down.  Educators are easy on adversity, if slow to embrace it, but they shy away from failure. 

This is what the career-focused message of talking heads is all about.  It's time to get tougher in the classroom, so that failure is a very real, even probable, option.  Learning how to face it, get up and begin again, or change direction and focus so that success is a different option, are what is missing from today's classrooms.  But not missing from life.

The above two Rules from Dumbing Down Our Kids by Charles Sykes say it well.  Unfortunately,  not even iPad apps are created in the spirit of failure - sorry, teachers who think new apps are a panacea for the "have it too easy" generations.  As Magiera has learned, they are useful for working through how a failure happened, but so is f2f conversation.

How then, do students learn how to fail forward - learn how to learn from failure?

The ELA teacher can help. Experienced teachers know that failure is embedded in the writing process, and that talking though writing failures is essential to improvement.

Students should not only write, but also read, about failure.  Models for failure in YA novels are few and far between, but they can be found.  Adversity, on the other hand, is all over the place - it is perhaps the soul of fiction, memoir and creative non-fiction.  If reading about adversity were enough, we would not be pounded over the head with the message that "failure is the [missing] key to success."  To learn about failure, students need to (1) experience it and (2) read engaging texts about it. 

What are the key identifiers of a good literary failure?  After reading through both business and educational discussions of the topic, I identify these traits that we should look for in failure-based texts:
  • A character exhibits a growth in character through the failure - no growth, no rising above failure (some characters wallow in it) and no avoiding it later on
  • A character who bounces back from failure displays "zest, grit, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism and curiosity" while doing so (source: NYTimes) - to which I would add adaptability.  My criticism of this list of traits is that is not enough to differentiate failure from overcoming adversity. 
  • Failure is a result of intentional (not accidental) risk-taking
  • Failure is scary - characters fear the consequences of failure
  • Failure results when the challenge is hard or when it requires a significant change in behavior or expectation
  • Failure is a result of a character's own shortcomings
  • There is no shelter from a good failure - no safety net - or it won't happen (e.g.  the character is on his/her own)
  • Bouncing back from failure requires seeking and listening to good feedback, and then doing something different. There is quite a science growing around the idea of failing forward, which Bob Sutton in the Harvard Business Review (blog) describes as "The basic idea is, as soon as feasible after some action occurs, a facilitator and/or teacher should have a conversation with the key participants about what went right, what went wrong, and what could be done better next time."
  • Often, bouncing back is not possible - a character must bounce sideways
  • Examining what failed in a successful experience leads to learning
  • Failure is painful
  • For a character, failure can be final - which is to say, it may lead to death (this is also true of a business or a business product) or to an entire change in life's direction (not necessarily a bad thing)
Compare this list to the top 20 lists of YA literature. Few contemporary protagonists, be they normal or extraordinary young people, fail. Those who do fail, and survive failure, do not generally pause to reflect, gather feedback, and metacognate on what went well.  I suggest that most novels read in ELA classrooms are anti-failure models.  Like a classroom or school in which "everyone succeeds" - in which all efforts are roundly praised - contemporary protagonists, even those in darkly dystopian or realistic tales, do not suffer as a result of their own shortcomings.

No wonder we find that teens avoid situations that challenge their shortcomings, that C is the new F, that teachers are not challenging students with problems that can be failed.  Such as novels that are at the top of the Lexile range or essays that ask students to apply difficult ideas to a text.

Below I am providing some Resources for reading failure-based text.  It is interesting to me that most of these resources are at the HS level.  This suggests to me that the adult world of authors also does not believe that children can deal with the idea of failure.  Hmm.

What we need to do is to embed conversation about failure in our classrooms, to open the pipe, so to speak.  All of the resources below can spearhead that discussion.  This conversation is also, of course, an exercise in critical thinking.

Chidren's Books - It is interesting that there are endless lists of children's books about dealing with divorce, disease, disability, death, moving, potty training, and dentistry.  But very few about failure. 
  • Ish (Reynolds) - about not being perfect
  • The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes (Pett and Rubenstein) - an elementary school girl who (learning to fail)
  • The Berenstain Bears - Poppa is often guilty of failure, as are Brother and Sister - a good place to start might be The Berenstain Bears Picnic
  • Peanuts - Charlie Brown
Fiction, Drama - None of these is appropriate for elementary school.  Isn't it curious how few pieces I have identified?  Suggestions welcome.
  • Only You Can Save Mankind (Pratchett) - video game turns out to be real and failure to not win has a consequence (600L)
  • One-Eyed Cat (Fox) - boy shoots cat (1000L)
  • The Stone-Faced Boy (Fox) - failure to deal, but also failure to communicate
  • Wintergirls (Anderson) - eating disorders - one friend fails, the other succeeds (730L)
  • Jellicoe Road - (Marchetta) - consequences of a failure through two generations - fear of failure (820L)
  • Rash (Hautman) - failing forward in a future world (730L)
  • Ender's Game (Scott Card) - in which failure must be redirected (780L)
  • Romeo and Juliette - the failures of support systems  (can be read as early as 7th with some editing)
  • Monster (Myers) - is the failure the boy or the system?
  • Scorpions (Myers) - boy's experiment with gang life (610L)
  • Fahrenheit 451 (Bradbury) - future citizen faces his failure to resist (890L)
  • Othello - failure of trust
  • The Death of a Salesman - the failures of a salesman and father
  • The Mayor of Casterbridge (Hardy) - persistent gloom of failure as only Hardy can do it (1090L)
  • Catcher in the Rye - read as a failure story, is this going to be a failing forward or just the blame game?  (790L)
  • The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (le Carre) - great spy stuff anti-hero - also a new movie 
  • The Secret Agent (Conrad) - an earlier classic spy failure (1030L)
  • Seize the Day (Bellow) - down and out adult
  • Billy Liar (Waterhouse) - Yorkshire youth - 1959 - also a good film
  • Jasper Jones (Silvey) - Australian youth - Vietnam War Era - Prinz Prize and one of my current favorites for YA
Non-fiction - you might find the contrast of the articles and the first text to be ironic.  The irony becomes less when we realize that characters who are alone - who have no one with whom to talk - fail with more finality. 
Film and Media
  • Race to Nowhere - high-powered adolescent girl suicide
  • Fail-Safe (1964) - a classical look at military failure
  • Waiting for Superman - the failure of the educational system
  • Billy Liar (1963)
  • It's a Wonderful Life
  • The Apprentice: The Complete First Season - DVD - no one pounces on failure better than Donald Trump 
  • Iron Chef - TV and DVD of series
  • Survivor - play any episode and focus on the last few minutes: how is failure dealt with?  Is this a growing experience
  • The Amazing Race - play any episode and focus on how teams make adjustments
  • video games or game apps - any shoot 'em game, it seems - "Given that every game eventually ends in failure, there's a surprising amount of variety here" (review of Ziggurat app)

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