Monday, October 8, 2012

She Knows There's No Success Like Failure.....But Failure's No Success At All: From Dichotomy to Dialectic

My friend Jason said I should start writing some shorter blogs, so here is my first attempt. We shall see how this goes; short may be hard.

Teachers always say that they learn things from their students, and that is one reason why they teach. To be honest, I find that when I actually ask teachers what was the last thing they learned from a student, many are tongue-tied. But what I have noticed in some teachers, and it's certainly true for me, is that when they DO learn things from students, it is because the students have learned something about themselves. This is the kind of learning that often occurs with experience-based teaching, and it leads to some of the most insightful moments I have with students. For example, having just finished a weekend of writing cognitive profiles of CITYterm students for mid-semester narratives, I find that the self-assessments the students produce lead me to some of the most interesting strategies for cognitive growth.

Here is a line from the end of a student's college essay that I have been pondering for some time, and is an example of what I mean.

She writes at the end of her essay, "What I have learned at CITYterm is that true failure is what inhibits you from experiencing the serendipitous moments that reunite you with your imagination and redirect you toward your purpose."

What was so impressive to me was that she had arranged so many different  experience-based learning principles into a unique combination that was original-- failure, serendipity, reuniting as integration, imagination and purpose.

Of course, what is also so remarkable is that her statement is, in fact, precisely what this student needed to learn:  she was petrified of failure (she had never really failed before in school) and deftly avoided experiences she thought could trigger her sense of failure when she arrived at CITYterm. But she did a lot of work on herself during the semester and came out with something remarkable and memorable. I have found myself often thinking about what those "inhibitions" are; how many forms do they take?

My own thinking about failure was first informed by Bob Dylan when I was a freshman in high school with the release of "Love Minus Zero/ No Limit"--"she knows there's no success like failure, but that failure's no success at all." It took me a long time to really have this as a feeling, but to live that paradox deeply means that you come to understand a new way of approaching learning. (It is worth noting here that there are few statements that I have come across that generate as much debate and strong feelings as this one. So, for whatever reason, this seems to be a hot button issue in the world I inhabit. I would be curious to see what you think about Dylan's proposal.)

Failure, for people who are not experience-based learners, is the opposite of success. The two concepts--success and failure--represent a dichotomy that cannot be reconciled.  Most of the students I am around who are high achievers have not yet understood the wisdom of what Dylan was proposing. But as we have seen in earlier posts, dichotomies are dangerous territory for experience-based learning because they often frame the issue in overly simplistic ways.

I think that what Dylan is proposing is not a dichotomy but a dialectic. The difference is profound. Success and failure as a dialectic sees these two concepts as a yin and yang--forever intertwined in a whole entity that is dynamic, like a journey. People who "enter the paradox" through dialectical thinking are more effective in navigating the vicissitudes of life that we actually do not completely control--whether it is at home, or in school or on the basketball court. What a dialectical way of thinking does is give you an intentionality to aim yourself toward a goal, do your best to maintain focus and allow yourself to accept the outcome of your efforts--whatever they may be. I sometimes wonder whether there is a correlation between people who think in dichotomies and people who want to control the outcome of things.

So speaking of basketball,

Larry Bird, Boston Celtics legend, was probably the person who most exemplified the ability to embrace the dialectic of success and failure when I was a young teacher. (Not that Larry Legend would have described it this way, but click the link to watch Larry in the fourth quarter in the 1988 game 7 of the NBA semifinals and you will get a sense of what I mean.) Even though he was someone who was one of the best passers of the ball ever to live, he was always unafraid to take the crucial shot. It always seemed like he was on a journey that thrilled and excited him. He didn't get caught up in any fears about failure that interfered with his ability to just do his best at playing the game.

What I have come to realize is that turning the dichotomy of success and failure into a dialectic is one of the keys to becoming an advanced experience-based learner. I sometimes wish schools would think more in dialectics and less in dichotomies. This may be one reason that the schools I am most familiar with are dedicated to success and quite afraid of failure. Perhaps we should establish a top award for "dialectics in success and failure?" Or would that be too much "guerrilla irony?"

1 comment:

  1. So this is a great start... But I think we can get EVEN SHORTER STILL!!!!!!!!!