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Jewish World Review July 7, 2003 / 7 Tamuz 5763

Steve Young

Steve Young
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Consumer Reports

The failure of our schools stems from our schools' failure to understand the value of failure: Profiting From an Ignored Resource Saves Money And Kids | Vouchers? School choice? Get rid of the unions? Strengthen the unions? Leave no child behind? Seems like today's reform efforts are more about leaving everything behind, including many of the children. It's the throw out the dishes with dishwater approach. Problem is, the new dishes are unaffordable and they soon will get dirty.

This week, in announcing new dishes ($7,500 vouchers per eligible student to use as they see fit, for public or private schools) for Washington's schools, President Bush said, "The District of Columbia is setting a bright example of what is possible in education reform. I'm here to praise the elected officials of Washington, D.C., for your willingness to step out and to confront failure when you see it and to praise success when you see it, as well."

Confront failure? It's like failure is a bad thing, and actually, there seems plenty to substantiate it. Take a look at how the fine folks at Merriam-Webster define it:

'fail-ure': 1. the state or fact of being lacking or insufficient 2. a losing of power or strength; weakening, dying away. 3. not doing; neglect or omission. 4. not succeeding in doing or becoming. 5. person who does not succeed.

It's hard to deny it's validity. In baseball, if someone strikes out with the bases loaded, we boo. In show biz, if a person's stage performance is poor, we pan it. In school if a student takes a test and gets 40 correct out of 100 questions, they receive a failing grade.

40 out of 100. That's close to 40%. Of course it should be failing. 40 % stinks. Webster's knows what it's talking about, right?

But what about the Major League baseball player who gets 40 hits every 100 times he bats. What is he, besides nonexistent? That hypothetical .400 hitter would be one of the best-- if not the-- best baseball player of all time. Not much of a failure, huh?

Merriam-Webster must be wrong. Perhaps. What about the scientist whose research takes him through countless experiments to finally bring him to his finding? Were all his unsuccessful trials along the way failures? Would Merriam-Webster call them failures? By definition, yes. Now does Merriam-Webster have it straight? Perhaps not. This is the crux of the problem and if my hypothesis is correct there also sits the solution.

"In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity"

--Albert Einstein

Sen. Christopher Dodd, the senior Democrat on the Senate Children and Families' Subcommittee said of the Act to Leave No Child Behind, "This measure ensures that infrastructure isn't neglected by injecting critically important new resources into initiatives that we know work..."

"Important new resources." What about an old resource? What about a resource that for far too long has been ignored? What about a resource that we've long ago bought and paid for that we've never given a chance and still sits waiting to be capitalized on without additional... capital? What about failure?

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Failure has been assigned so negative a value that it has appeared to have no value at all. But what if we allowed ourselves to think out of the box. To judge failure not for what it doesn't include have but what it does. To look at what the student knows, not what he doesn't.

When a child takes a test and scores a 40 out of a possible 100, you can pretty well assume he has failed that test, and rightly so. The student gets an "F" for his efforts (or non-effort). In most cases, that's where it ends. The "F"stands, the student falls. If a teacher is concerned (and has the time...ha!), more likely than not she'll attempt to teach that student the other 60%; the 60% the student did not know. How? By re-teaching what did not sink in the first time around. This approach may be heroic, but not very efficient. In most cases, with a student who didn't get it the first time around, unless he just had a bad day, there's no sense thinking that he would do much better trying to learn the same things a second time. That student falls further and further behind. The teacher knows it, and worse, the damaged student does too. So he sits in the back of the room. It's where both his grades and his passion meet. At a crucial time of trying, he was quickly smacked down by his lack of...everything. There was nothing in school that he had any interest in. And if he had any, there was nothing he could do well. So he sits in the back. Far from the teacher. Even farther from education. A failure.

"It is often the failure who is the pioneer of new lands, new undertakings, and new forms of expression."

--Eric Hoffer

How do we repair the student? How do we prepare the student for when the teacher will appear? Perhaps instead of starting with what the student had wrong, why not start with what he had right. I'm not speaking about false praise or kudos where none belong. I'm talking about the information he can get a grasp of. In the best scenario, what the student does know and begin the building there.

Creators court mistakes as part of their creative process. They learn that a drip of paint on their canvas, a wrong chip in the marble, even a mistake in an otherwise well-planned experiment can lead to a major breakthrough. When a mistake show up most people despair. But the creator seizes the mistake as a way to break out. Seizing upon the mistake, the mind suddenly bursts into the open and takes a new route toward vision. This approach is very different than the one taken by our education system which punishes mistakes and marks them wrong. This may well be one reason that creators as a group don't do well in school.

--John Briggs, Fire In The Crucible

It's not like any teacher can spend one-on-one time trying to shove the information down the student's throat. Even then, he'd been spitting most of it right back out. This situation calls for finding out what the kid knows or does well, even if it's what others consider his failures. Even if it's telling jokes, making spit-balls, or even, being angry.

One of the advantages of being disorderly is that one is constantly making exciting discoveries.

--A. A. Milne

How can seemingly obvious wastes of time be used as teaching tools? Most important in any teaching proposition is the establishment of a proper place to start. In failure, there is actually a place of knowledge, a place of comfort, and therefore a viable learning tool. The objective is not perfection. The intention is only to get the heart AND the brain moving; to have the student use his imagination on something he understands. Any similarity here to any academic thesis is purely coincidental, but it's amazing how more effectively we think when it's about something we're familiar with. The student's effort doesn't have to be flawless, it only has to be.

Some recipes are filled with bizarre ingredients. It's up to you to whip them up into something scrumptious.

--Anonymous Chef

Of course there is cost. I propose the expenditure of sixty minutes a week. While having teachers work with each student on some individual and separate curriculum seems like an time-implausible task, but it can be done. We don't have to spend hours on this, just enough to give the kids a start, a bit of impetus.

Once a week set aside an hour in which the students work on a project of their own making. The concept should be theirs alone. The teacher spends five-minutes with each student making sure to remind the students of their original visions. The teachers should suggest educational directions...writing, art, etc, but nothing grammatical or structural. That's for another class, another time. The idea is not to judge, not to stifle; not to kill the freedom and energy that creativity breeds.

In most cases our educational process makes an effort to teach the same thing to every individual student, using the same techniques expecting the same result. What happens is that some will excel, some will just pass and some will fail. With each student' individual experience and level of expertise, how in the world would you expect any diverse group of children to learn on an equal level. Everything being equal, a sedan will not run its course as quickly as a sports car. Let's not blow the engines of so many wonderful kids. The repair costs are enormous.

So, President Bush, Secretary Paige, before educational budgets are cut, public school systems are decimated and new expenditures are spent, please don't ignore the power of failure. And isn't it about time Merriam-Webster add to its definition of failure: A stepping stone to success.

JWR contributor Steve Young, Prism Award winner and Humanitas Prize nominee for his television writing, is contributing editor at the Writers Guild of America's "Written By" magazine. He is the author of "Great Failures of the Extremely Successful: Mistakes, Adversity, Failure and Other Stepping Stones to Success," "The 130 Tales of Winchell Mink," Harper Collins (Winter, 2003) and the director/writer of "My Dinner With Ovitz." His website is Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Steve Young