Failure, Something to Ponder

Earlier today I Tweeted this:

For contextual purposes I include a definition of failure:

“fail·ure [feyl-yer]

1. an act or instance of failing  or proving unsuccessful; lack of success.
2. non-performance of something due, required, or expected.
3. a subnormal quantity or quality; an insufficiency.”

This tweet led to an exchange of messages that centred around my choice of the word “failure”.  Most of the responses agreed with the sentiment as defined above, that in education, in order for us to learn, we need to experience setbacks en route to achieving greater success.  In fact, some have even retweeted my original message (even with my missing word error!).

However, even when people agreed with the sentiment, several messages challenged  whether we should use the word “failure” in Education.  There were a lot of compelling arguments for why we shouldn’t use this word and many of them were rooted in what the connotation meant to the responder.  For many the concern with using this word is the fact that it can evoke a sense of completion, an end point (and not a positive one).

A consistent theme evident in the arguments against using the word failure is a concern that those who are not actively engaged in discussions about education won’t have the experiences to make the connection of the word with the sentiment intended when it is used today.  I certainly agree that this is a valid concern.  I also agree that we need to be careful which words we choose.

There is a lot of dialogue around the evolution of education. This growth is not limited to what is happening in schools but extends to our conversations about school.  If the concern is that some, even many, people may misconstrue the sentiment of a word like failure based on their past experiences, then I see this as an opportunity for those people to learn.

In our attempts to move education forward, we need to challenge the thinking of those rooted in the past. In education we know what we mean when we use the word fail.  It is commonly accepted that we fail all the time, in fact I recently wrote a Blog about a failure  of my own. When I re-read it (you can read it here), I never used the term – probably because at the time of writing it was easier to use softer language but the reality is I fell short, I failed and just as I wrote, that was okay.

I am happy to see the dialogue that my Tweet has inspired.  In our attempts to evolve the way people think about and view education, we also need to address how people speak about education.  To do this, we can’t avoid words that carry connotations from the past, we need to use them – when appropriate – and teach to them.