Tag Archives: philosophy of education

The Failure Résumé

I came across this recently and liked it.

Let’s talk about failure by Heather Long of the Guardian.

It is a great idea to think about the positive effect of experiencing failures in life.  As a kid I was captivated by the old legend of Abe Lincoln who purportedly failed in almost everything he ever tried.  The myth generally goes something like this:

A list of Abraham Lincoln’s Failures:

  • Lost job, 1832
  • Defeated for legislature, 1832
  • Failed in business, 1833
  • Elected to legislature, 1834
  • Sweetheart (Ann Rutledge) died, 1835
  • Had nervous breakdown, 1836
  • Defeated for Speaker, 1838
  • Defeated for nomination for Congress, 1843
  • Elected to Congress, 1846
  • Lost renomination, 1848
  • Rejected for Land Officer, 1849
  • Defeated for Senate, 1854
  • Defeated for nomination for Vice-President, 1856
  • Again defeated for Senate, 1858
  • Elected President, 1860

It turns out that the whole truth is richer and more complicated than that, but for me it was still a moving myth.  “You mean a guy like that can become a great president?”  Yep.  And that realization was one of the first concepts that changed the way I saw the world.

And then there is this:

It is far more than your average Nike commercial.  The idea that this adds to the somewhat simplistic message of the Abe Lincoln story is causation.  The Abe Lincoln story says, “keep trying.”  It’s the old, If at first you don’t succeed idea – which was never that satisfying because it doesn’t suggest you are getting anywhere by continuing to try.  There is no promise of progress through failure there.

The Nike commercial’s message is quite different.  Jordan cites his significant failures and then says, “…and that is why I succeed.”  And that asserts a direct causal relationship.  My success is not in spite of my failures; it is because of them.

A couple of short stories:

1.   I once witnessed a high school soccer player miss an important shot.  It was heartbreakingly close.  Upper right corner from 12 meters out.  It was a clutch shot that would have tied the game with less than a minute to play.  He was the most talented single player on team, and when we saw him set up for it, we thought it was a sure thing.  He had made many such shots and far harder ones before.  But he missed, just a little high and the team lost.  The next morning, he was out, first thing, with a bag of balls and his girlfriend playing keeper.  He was firing shot after shot from 12 meters at the upper right corner.  He must have hit 200 balls that morning.

2.   When my son was an infant, my wife and I hired a babysitter for an evening.  When we returned, our babysitter was visibly shaken and she immediately told us what had happened.  She had stepped away from the changing table for a moment and my son had rolled off and hit the floor.  She apologized earnestly and said she understood if we couldn’t hire her again, and I remember thinking, almost instantly, “No, no, no.  You are the one we want from now on because that mistake doesn’t happen twice.”  She was a better babysitter now that this had happened.  We should have given her a raise.

What these two stories have in common is the effect of failure and how it improves performance.

What is the practical upshot of all this?  In hiring and forming organizations, we can use information about people’s failures to understand what they have experienced and what they have likely learned.  We can certainly better understand a person’s orientation toward learning by hearing the stories of their failures – the things that did not go well and what they did about them.

If you are looking for someone who can break out of an established structure to do something different, success in that established structure is not a good indicator.  You are really looking for someone who has not done well in a previous model if you are trying to transcend it.

In schools it is the same.  Any school that is looking for bright, creative, and motivated students for a forward leaning program based on a creativity and innovation should not turn its nose up at students for whom the industrial model of schooling was an uncomfortable fit.  In fact, knowing what the industrial model of schooling does to creativity, poor performance in a standard school might be an indicator of creative inclination.  Now that has implications.

Who are the real change-makers of today?  You won’t find many of them at Yale, Harvard, or Stanford.  They weren’t admitted.

Actually, I am reasonably sure you will find change makers with a variety of academic profiles, but many of them are your typical C and D, bored high school students who spend a lot time tinkering in the shop, teaching themselves how to code, and are somewhat withdrawn because poor grades come with a stigma at no extra charge.

Why I Teach – A Personal Philosophy of Education

What one does and how one does it is the product of what one believes and one’s orientation toward the future.  Upon that premise, I set forth now, as a classroom teacher and an experiential educator, my personal philosophy of education.  Let it be known that this I believe:

What is education?  What is teaching?

I believe that the true goal of education is the realization of human potential, that one’s personal human potential is the full expression of authentic self in relation to truth in community, and that realizing one’s personal potential depends on a reliable foundation of accurate self knowledge.

Therefore, education is the system by which we strive to realize the heights of human potential through the practice of teaching and the process of learning.

Teaching is the day-to-day endeavor to inspire and bring about learning in students. Its goal is the acquisition of knowledge, the advent of insight, and the development of personal capacities through live encounters with matters of real concern and the processing of experience. All knowledge is self-knowledge by virtue of the subjectivity of the knower; what is known, and even the act of knowing, is not independent of the knower, and, ultimately, what is experienced by the knower is a manifestation of self.

Self-knowledge is that collection of relevant and comparative information that a student uses to form a conception of self in community others and with truth. Furthermore, self knowledge allows the identification of passions and empowers the pursuit of happiness in moving forward with the uncertain business of living a life.

Fundamentally, teaching is the judicious practice of managing experiences to make them useful to students in interpreting the world and in pursuing their passions. Interpreting the world means making meaning of history and the human condition and understanding one’s place in both human and natural contexts. Pursuing their passions means identifying their talents and affinities and feeling empowered to develop them in community with others.

The individual and the community

The individual and the community coexist in collaborative interdependence, the two thriving on each other in measured balance. Human potential can only be realized in community with others because it is dependent on a human social context for its value. Individual expression in isolation has no effect, no benefit, and no real-world value. As such, it is a feckless and impotent gesture, incapable of either improving or diminishing the human condition. Self expression is made real when the effects on other people are manifest.

Community only exists to the extent that it recognizes and celebrates individuals and their free and personal expressions of self. Oppression is the curtailing of free and personal expression of self, and an oppressed community is diminished in capacity and human potential by the lack of expression. A community without a vibrancy of distinct and striving individuals working in common cause does not advance or progress and eventually collapses for lack of original thought and new ideas, both of which come only from free and personal expression of self.

The questions students ask

While they might not always be consciously aware of the questions they are asking, and even if they have come to give themselves automatic and pat answers, I believe students always ask three big questions about themselves while learning:

    • Is this about me?
    • Can I use this?
    • What am I compared to this?

 

These are the questions that compose the student experience of learning.

Is this about me?

This is the fundamental question that determines a student’s level of engagement in the learning process, and engagement is the primary modulator of lasting learning. Engagement engenders experience, and experience causes and necessitates a change in one’s perception of the self in relation to truth and the world. In reaction to experience one changes one’s mental models of the self and of the world, and from there one moves forward into new experiences with a new set of expectations and understandings.

So, “Is what is happening around me about me, of me, for me?” becomes the primary question, often tacitly asked and tacitly answered.

The degree to which a student feels able, invited, and compelled to participate in the content or material being learned is the degree to which it has an influential effect on his or her mental models of the world, of truth, and of the self. Enduring mental models are most of what we call knowledge, and a mental model that includes a conception of self with an active agency in the world is the foundation for citizenship in a community.  To create a sense of citizenship, of vested interest in a community, schools have to succeed in engaging students and instilling a sense of effectual participation. To do that, students have to feel that what they are learning is essentially and in some way about them.

And so, the content of what is taught should be relevant, first and foremost.

At risk is the alienation and anonymity that comes from the perception that this community or this experience or this world is not about me or my people, and there is nothing at stake for me here.

Can I use this?

The human brain forgets far, far more than it remembers, and thankfully so. Actually, it doesn’t forget so much as it sifts and filters experience to identify relevant and useful information to store in memory. The vast majority of what perceived through the senses is never even stored for future recall – because it is deemed irrelevant and has no identifiable bearing on health or well being.

Those things deemed relevant and useful are acquired, stored, recalled, and applied to new situations effortlessly. And incidentally, it happens all the time, within school and without, in every situation. The brain never “turns off,” it is always acquiring and evaluating information for relevance and utility, and the information it stores as relevant and useful are accessed without trouble.

So, the critical question that is asked, usually unknowingly, to determine whether content material is stored for later use or not is Can I use this and how? For learning and memory, utility of what is learned is critical. If we want students to remember and use what we teach them, we need to be very clear about how they are going to use what they are learning to interpret the world and their place in it and to navigate their pursuit of what they find most meaningful in life. That is what the human brain has evolved to do; there is no other way.

And so, the content of what is taught should be useful.

At risk is the notion that what is learned in school is not necessary, static and dead, already known by other people who do other things, and that learning is simply a short-lived torture of memory.  At risk is the notion that there is nothing new under the sun.

What am I compared to this?

Learning leaves a mark on the self. Everything we experience goes to creating a conception of the self that is dynamic and constantly changing with new experience. The brain is the seat of selfhood, personality, character, affinity, truth, beauty, and passion. Everything that is perceived comes through the brain and is affected by the mechanisms of thought, memory, consciousness, and emotion. Content material exists in and of itself, but what is experienced and learned is a combination of the thing itself and the self.

So, everything that is learned serves to define the self who learns and chart a path forward.  In this sense learning is always an act of comparison.  Students work to understand a concept or master a skill and then through the questions of relevance and usefulness come to some conclusions about themselves in comparison to what is learned.

Reading and studying Macbeth,for instance, coming to know the play through experience, can bring a sense of identity, as in – I know Macbeth. I am the one who knows Macbeth. Of course, other conceptions of self in comparison to Macbeth are possible, too, as in I am one who does not understand Macbeth. Any conception of self that comes from an experience with Macbeth serves to define the self who moves forward into new texts and new learning. The anticipation of a reading of Romeo and Juliet, for instance, will be influenced by the conception of self that was changed by reading Macbeth.

And so, learning should empower further learning.

At risk is the notion that I am nothing compared to this. Powerless before knowledge, incapable of growth, students who come to see themselves as inadequate in comparison to content will choose not to learn, not to express themselves in community with others and the human condition, and the human social context will be the poorer for it.

The bottom line

Through the brain-intensive process of learning, students actively redefine their conception of who they are in the human condition. In answering the questions Is this about me? Can I use this? and What am I in comparison to this? students gain self knowledge and insight into themselves as individuals, capable of self expression, in community with others and in relation to truth.

Because of that, the experience a student has while learning is far, far more important than the material learned.

This I believe.