Failure Isn't Final, It's Feedback

A couple weeks ago, as I was listening to my Precision Nutrition Coaching, I heard this motivational anecdote--

Remember, there's no such thing as failure, only feedback.

Something clicked in my brain. I've spent a good amount of time as an educator reading about growth mindset, and I've tried to be intentional about how I approach mistakes with students. I've used resources, like Khan Academy Learn Storm, to guide students through the neuroscience and set a tone for my classroom. And this one sentence made me question everything. So I did what I tend to do with questions--I asked them out loud.

The inspiring people of my educational Twitterverse did not disappoint. I was reminded of why I love Twitter. It's a space where I can have a question, share it, and gather perspectives asynchronously as I process through my own thoughts. As I was processing, and honestly fangirling a bit over George Couros actually engaging in this conversation, I was encouraged to write my own response. I've spent several years wanting to blog, trying to blog, forgetting to blog, and repeating that cycle. So here I am in this new iteration. Let's see where it takes us. 

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What do I believe about failure?
I believe we learn more in the moments we make mistakes than we do in the moments everything runs smoothly.

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What is failure?
When I looked up the definition of failure, it said the lack of success. So naturally, I'm wondering what success is. Success can be defined as the accomplishment of an aim or purpose. Ok, I can work with that. There may be a lot of definitions of failure or success depending on who you ask. I don't think I had a personal definition of either until just now. 

Failure - the lack of accomplishment of a task or goal

Success - the accomplishment of a task or a goal

When I look at those definitions, neither seems to carry much weight. By that I mean, I don't know that I'd have any strong emotional reactions to being told I had committed a failure or success. Stop. That's not true. I'm a type-A, firstborn, enneagram one. If I do not accomplish a goal, this is an issue for me personally. By issue, I mean I am going to keep at it or change my goal. Is one of those responses better than the other?

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Is failure final?
I'm not convinced it is. If you would have asked me on November 9th if I agreed with the above statement, I would have said yes. I've changed my mind. The twitter feed and subsequent blog post brought this idea into my sphere of awareness. It pairs well with a universal belief I've developed over this last year--context matters. Context is at least 50% of the conversation, if not more.

  • If a student is struggling through a subtraction problem and they abandon a strategy because they realize it wasn't working--is that a failure? Nope. 
  • If they abandon the subtraction problem because they are frustrated--is that a failure? Maybe not. Do they need a break? Do they need to reset? Do they need to try something they are successful at for a bit to get back that feeling of self-efficacy?
  • If they abandon the subtraction problem without the intention of revisiting and trying something different--is that a failure? I mean, maybe. Did they accomplish the goal? No. Also, in what world do students have the option to just walk away from a concept they are struggling with? I haven't seen that option in my experience. I have seen students put forth as little effort as possible to complete an assignment and check that box. Is that a failure? Probably. But whose failure is it to own and do something about?

However, humans are rarely that cut and dry. I've got goals. Lots of them. One of my goals is to earn a doctoral degree. I'd also really like to be an instructor in the college of education at a local university. I have not taken many steps towards either of those goals. I'm not quite trying. I'm definitely not accomplishing these things. Is that a failure? I don't think so. Life has seasons, and this is not the season for me to pursue those particular goals. I'm currently an instructional coach and I'd like to increase my teacher relationships in my district. I'd like to help shift the culture from "I can figure this out on my own," to "Who am I going to ask for help with this?" These fit my current season. Setting down one dream as I pursue another is not a failure.

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What is the relationship students learners have with failure?
I notice an absent voice from this conversation between myself, my colleagues, and my PLN on Twitter. Students. Learners. It appears our lens is mostly that of "people who help others work through making mistakes" and not "people who make mistakes and also help others work through making mistakes." Sometimes it's hard to talk about students and also ourselves at the same time. I suppose the voice I'm actually looking for is not that of a student or a teacher, a learner or non-learner. It's the voice of youth.

I'm curious as to what a young child (elementary) might say if asked to define failure and if they've ever failed. I'd love to compare that to a middle and high school child's response. I'm curious how the young learner responses would differ from the adult learner. Where did this conversation of failure come from? Did it come from the kids in our care? Or are we projecting some of our own learning baggage onto their process? Are we oversharing the word "failure"? I don't have the answers to these questions, they are just part of the non-stop stream in my head that asks if I've considered all the angles. As with most rabbit holes I enter, I encounter more questions than answers.

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What's the most important thing about failure?
I think about The Important Book that my friend Lindsay shared with me this year. The important thing about failure is that it is feedback. It can be a noun. It can be a verb--fail, failing. It can be devastating. It can be inconsequential. It is not a label for a person. It is a step in a process. But the most important thing about failure is that it is feedback.

By the way, so is success. Our experiences are full of large and small failures and successes. Each one giving us information about what works and what doesn't. And if you were to ask Thomas Edison, he'd say both are really important pieces of information. But is that enough? Do we stop there? We've found out something works or doesn't. El fin? Sayonara? No.

The follow up to the information is more important than the finding of the information. If we stop at the moment we discover what works or doesn't, the moment we accomplish a goal or don't, then our learning ceases. We stop growing. Regardless of whether we get to failure or success, we keep moving. Either with the same goal and the power of new information or perspective or with the next goal. Learning doesn't end. There is no expiration date. That arrow means: Onward.


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