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A Better Way to Fail

Scott Robinson

 Colorado. 1955.

The crumpled piece of paper had gotten stuck in the back corner of the cubby, wedged into a gap in the cherry veneer. I had been slowly working my way across the row of shelving, clearing out the academic residue of another sixth grade year. With a bit of wrangling the paper came loose, unfolding to reveal an old Latin quiz I had given my students months earlier.

I stared at the D minus, following the page down through the misconjugations and blank spaces. Papers like this usually made me pause and reflect. Some days it was on how my pedagogy might have fallen short, what I hadn’t conveyed effectively. Other times my thoughts were on the kids, disappointed at their squandered potential or saddened by a knowledge of their poor home environments.

That afternoon, though, I realized I held in my hand a sixth grader’s approach to failure. It was something to be discarded, neglected, suppressed. It provided no value, only a poignant mix of apathy and shame, crushed into a crinkled symbol of disappointment.

In my teaching experience, this concept of failure seemed to be the norm. It’s a bit odd, considering the popularity of contrasting tales. Thomas Edison and his 1,000 failed light bulbs, Albert Einstein’s educational struggles, R. H. Macy’s multiple store closures…history is littered with great artists, scientists, inventors, and industry leaders whose successes were forged through their use of failure as a stepping stone for improvement and growth.

We may tip our hat to all sorts of rich paradigms for understanding failure, but do we make any effort to incorporate them into our educational methodology? The dusty paper in my hand said otherwise. It spoke of failure as static, as a terse, single-minded declaration: “insufficient”.

Such an approach to failure is useful in one way, at least —it provides a quantifiable, universal notion that fits well into political sound bites on the state of modern education. But if seen as an exclusive definition, it threatens to suck educational policy into a vicious cycle driven only by a desire to lower the number of such “insufficients”.

But my intention is not to delve into the politics of education, it is to open an inquiry: What if we were to handle failure less as a judgmental declaration, and more as a constructive conversation? What if it was seen less as an end, and more as a beginning?

Perhaps I would not have discovered the abandoned quiz that day, had its young recipient known a better way to fail.

(Photo by Elliott Erwitt)