Monday, July 15, 2013

Semantics Matter

I fully believe that educators and parents do what they do because they see their actions as serving students' best interests.  I don't want to come across as being critical of an idea or of the people excited by it.  Trust me, I understand that this post stems from a bit of my own psychosis around words and two things I've come to know about them that make our choices so important: 1) they hold emotional weight 2) they slip into our consciousness much more easily than they are taken out.

Here, I'm hoping to process an idea that seems to be gaining a lot of ground because there are numerous educators and writers I deeply respect hoping to change our reaction to the idea of "failure."  These are bright, passionate people who are bold enough to stand up in the middle of our world full of helicopter parents, social promotion, ubiquitous trophies, baby leashes, and hot-content warning on coffee to say that failure is not only okay, but that it would actually benefit students in school if we let them fail.  Wait, did I read that correctly?  Are these people - many of whom have become highly inspirational to me via my Twitter PLN - now siding with those snarky, traditionally minded teachers I've know (and been in my past) who promote students' "right to fail" as a means of justifying the idea that the onus for student failure lies solely on the student?  Could they be agreeing that students being left on their own to fail is a valuable way of preparing them for the "real world"?

No.  That's not what they're saying, at all. It's a semantics issue that I'm having with the use of the word failure, not a disagreement about what's good for students.  Spoiler alert: I'll explain - up front - why we agree.

People - students and toddlers and adults - grow the most when they're allowed to work through issues, problems, tasks and questions. Valuable learning experiences are just that, the end result of long, varied, complex and often repeated attempts at finding and/or creating a path/process that may or may not actually result in a new idea, accomplishment, understanding, ability, friendship, etc.  Defining learning is a lot like defining's messy, murky, unpredictable, frustrating, inclusive, time-consuming and absolutely important and necessary.  What we've done in our modern world is to sanitize this process, thinking that safe, sanitary, and time-efficient means are better the version of learning I've just described.  Many systems that don't respect process have done things like this, in fact.  Examples include 1) the way we gentrify neighborhoods with chain coffee shops and t-shirt stores because the product and profit are more comfortingly predictable and 2) our urge to pass top-heavy legislation because it's what Thoreau called "an expedient," the quickest way to the end.

And we've essentially turned public school into a place where students are way too often expected to show up with facility in the academic, social, and technical skills and knowledge schools require instead of coming to us to first learn them.  Replacing the organically murky and unpredictable learning processes with three ideas, however, leaves our students at a significant disadvantage.  The truths we're hoping have worked and will continue to work? 1) All students are going to learn curricula in a given amount of time within a given system of experiences in a pre-determined given order.  2) The things we teach aren't meaningful enough to insist that all students gain proficiency in them, or even finish them in many cases. 3) The system will not accommodate the needs of individual learners nearly as much as is necessary.

This is where "failure" comes in.  The system doesn't work, and the idea of failing and/or being a failure has become an entrenched feature of the psyche that runs it.  It's used to say that kids don't measure up, that they haven't done what's necessary (whatever that may be), and most importantly - that their chances of doing anything about it are done and gone.  In our schools, "failure" is something that's either come and gone or has happened so often that it's become a defining characteristic of a student as in "(s)he is a failure."

It is not currently seen the way my educator/PLN friends want to see it defined when they say it's good for kids.  They want the failure that Thomas Edison talks about when he says - and I'll paraphrase - that every time he got the light bulb wrong, that was one less thing he had to try on his path to getting it right.  Or the amount of missed shots that Michael Jordan says helped him to make the ones for which he became so famous. They want failure to be something from which our students will bounce back to try again using different starting points, materials, or methods.  They want failure to remain part of the organic, messy process of learning.  They don't want parents, coaches and educators to swoop in anytime something get rough for kids.  They want to promote Dweck's "growth mindset" and Duckworth's "grit."

I do, too.  I just think we shouldn't say that failure is good for kids.  I want us to call it "struggling" instead.  I know, revealing my point is as anti-climactic and semantic bound as promised, but I still think it's important because I don't want to have to explain it repeatedly.  Let's let the traditionalists have their "failure" and come on board with the benefit of having students "struggle" in classes.  It's going to beyond wait time to a place where they are compelled to work out problems and questions with classmates and look up information to add to their thinking.  It's the place where they come to us with an answer, find that their solution is wrong and then prompted to figure out why?  It's a place where students feel comfortable learning instead of being embarrassed because they don't know something.  It's like I tell my own children, who are 5 and 8, instead of saying "I can't" or "It's too hard," we say "I'm still trying" and "This is tough.  It takes a long time."

And that's where I want their heads to stay.  


  1. I couldn't agree more that not getting it right the first time, or first few times, is simply the way the process of elimination naturally occurs until the right answer comes to light. The AHA!!moment is what makes learning an engaging,compelling, and memorable experience.

    All teachers do not teach the same way. All students do not learn the same way. the way we teach and learn all depends on the experiences we have encountered in our lifetime both academic and personal.

    Our semantic thought patterns are based on experience. A perfect example shows evidence of differences in semantics between ages is word association. Using two subjects, one being a five year old, and one being an adult, ask "WHAT DO YOU THINK OF WHEN I SAY RED?". A five year old child may say LOLLIPOP, where as an thirty year old adult may say "STOP SIGN".

    There is a vast difference between responses solely based on the life experience of the two subjects. A five year old's world is about play and treats for the most part. The thirty year old associates red with stop signs because driving is part of everyday life.Try it yourself. I'm sure the results will be comparatively similar.

    I find the study of semantic thought to be a fascinating subject. All educators should be versed in, and consider it when developing curriculum....After all...our most important essential question is always..."What do our kids know, and how can we bridge that knowledge to what they need to learn?" Semantics holds the key to that bridge for certain.

  2. Thanks for getting into the conversation, Geraldine. The essential task is getting systems, schools, teachers, and students to buy into the importance of the learning process instead of only valuing the outcomes. Obviously, we all want the learning to go somewhere, but it is a process that can't be ignored.

  3. Expedient. I feel you some up current educational practice perfectly with that one word. I feel it to be a societal issue as well, seeping into our classrooms. Great read, thanks!