The fetishising of failure

How a random quote became a rallying trope for education. And why it’s wrong.

Blame Beckett

In his short story Worstward Ho, Samuel Beckett wrote:

”Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

It may have amused him (or not) that, 30 years later, a clowder of hipsters has had these words printed onto their T-shirts and inked into their skin. Any why not? It’s all a bit of fun. Except for one thing: it doesn’t mean what they think it does. “Ever” in this context means “always”: the guy has always tried and always failed. More than that, he’s never tried anything else, and so has never failed at anything else. Being shit, just a little less shit than last time, is not a positive message. This hasn’t stopped hep cats using “Fail better” for their totem, as though one of our most dystopian writers was actually a chirpy self-help guru with a cheesy line in crystal juju.

Be shit motivational poster

I’ve even seen “Ever failed?” on a poster with a question mark after it, as though it was a cheery query shouted across a tennis court in a TV ad for incontinence pants, and not a damning indictment of fecklessness.  And so it came to pass that “failing better” was, well, better than just failing.

It’s probably churlish to knock this usage. Trope-memes are the keto bread and manatee butter of Silicon Valley/Roundabout/Cwm/Treehouse. And what’s a TEDx talk without vacuous soundbites to pebbledash between the blinding grin-pauses? But sadly, it didn’t stop there:  The Little Trope That Could slipped quietly down from its oversized beanbag and weebled off to freedom, like a toddler who had just cacked its kecks. It was searching for love and encouragement, and it found it in the unquestioning arms of the educational establishment…

Teacher trope

Us teachers love a good trope. We know that kids aren’t going to absorb actual facts from a poster, so you may as well fill your walls with (mis)quotes by Einstein, Edison and Eminem. A snappy aphorism has it’s uses, and even bad ones like “Fail better” are easily ignored when they live above eyeline. If it had stopped there—a misinterpreted quote suggesting that failing is OK—we could have just ordered some “You failed best!” stickers and gone home happy.

But someone, somewhere, had to turn it into a backronym.

Backronyms are the flaming pen-sword of the illiterati, the crutch of the creatively retarded. Every single backronym ever made is a scrunch-faced cringefest. But this one comes with a trigger warning—I had to type it in shifts, it made me feel that nauseous. Gird your loins, for here it is:

”FAIL = First Attempt In Learning”

And with that, the poster plague began.

Walk in into any school and you’ll see something like this in classrooms, in the corridors, on staffroom mugs and, on occasion, tattooed across the headteacher’s pecs:

Elsewhere, you’ll come across it at educational conferences and training courses, as the turd-in-the-bathtub slide of an otherwise spunky presentation.

What’s the problem?

The message is wrong.

I’ve never been comfortable with the message that failing is OK, and the more recent First Attempt In Learning mantra bothered me more. But a paragraph in Martinez and Stager’s excellent “Invent to Learn” crystallised exactly what was wrong. They call it “the fetishizing of failure”, and it’s such a good phrase that I’ve nicked it for the title of this piece.

In the world of business, failure is real and can have profound consequences. You need to deal with it. In education, this message is harmful. In the language of the playground, “Fail!” is a scornful taunt. Google the word “fail” and browse the images: this is the reality of the word for a young person. Failing sucks. Why would I want a kid to fail, even once? Why would a teacher want their students to be inadequate? As Martinez says,

”Failure is judgement. It is punitive and high-stakes.”

I’m not kidding myself that education is a fluffy place where everyone always wins, and exercise books are marked in three different coloured pens. It’s just that students don’t need me to tell them that they’ve “failed”, and that they need to have another go. Pedagogically, an “attempt in learning” is meaningless, be it FAIL, SAIL or TAIL. Learning is a complex continuum, not a game of pin the tail on the donkey. No one has ever looked at that poster and thought, “I was going to give up, but now I know it was just my first attempt in learning!”

I was in a school recently where, ironically, the FAIL posters shared the corridors with another that quoted Thomas Edison’s chestnut, “I haven’t failed, I’ve just found 1000 ways that don’t work”. Although it’s a misquote (aren’t they all?), it was at happy odds with the FAIL idea on the opposite wall.  Edison did have the right idea when it came to failing:

”The failure of an experiment simply meant to him that he had found something else that would not work, thus bringing the possible goal a little nearer” — Edison, His Life and Inventions

Note that the experiment failed, not the experimenter.

gru as edison lighbulb poster

Motivational posters can be forgiven, but applying trite slogans to a student’s effort to learn and develop cannot. The message is meaningless and useless. It’s a non-sequitur, a red herring. It’s just plain daft.

And then, of course, there’s the F-word itself.

Yes, but really, what’s the problem?

The word is wrong.

Fail (v). To be inadequate or insufficient. To be unsuccessful in achieving one’s goal. To neglect to do something [Oxford English Dictionaries].

“Fail” is a useful word. “The car failed its MOT”; “I failed an exam”; “He failed to pull his parachute cord.”

“Fail” is the correct word when you have business targets and you fail to meet them. If you’ve ripped through your six-figure Kickstarter funding, and all you have to show for it is an orange fixie bike and a helical slide from boardroom to ball pit, then you’ve failed (unless that was actually your goal—I once backed such a venture). But in an educational context, the word “fail” has been misused, abused and appropriated, all to cram it into some crappy soundbite shoebox.

As Martinez says, the fail message, “confuses iteration with failure, when in fact any iterative design cycle is about continuous improvement”. Mistakes aren’t failures, they’re learning. It’s not failure if you keep at it and keep getting better. Think about what went wrong and then do it again, but better. Don’t fail better, do it better.

The Japanese have a word for this, kaizen, meaning continual improvement. That’s what we should be peddling. Kaizen is a beautifully evolved and inherent trait of Homo sapiens: it comes naturally and doesn’t need a patronising poster to tell you to have another go.

cro-magnon people knapping flint
A Cro-Magnon child caught knapping, but not failing

The fail-fetish faction has decided, unilaterally and without evidence, that failing is a positive thing, when actually it’s the opposite. Failure is final, and telling people that it’s OK to fail doesn’t make it any better. Letter-for-letter, it’s hard to think of a (non-sweary) word with a more profoundly negative payload than “fail”—it’s simply not possible to sugar coat it. Adults can deal with the word directed at them, young people can’t.

In The Last Lecture, Randy Pausch describes how he awarded a prize to the team of students who took the biggest gamble, who tried something different, even though they didn’t meet their goals. It was called the “First Penguin Award”, but that name wasn’t his first choice:

”I originally called it ‘The Best Failure Award,’ but failure has so many negative connotations that students couldn’t get past the word itself.”

Why does it matter?

Our time as educators is precious and we must make it count, even if it is “only” a few hours putting up posters, or delivering a 30-minute PowerPoint. It’s incredibly hard in education to stop for a moment, zoom out, and examine what we are doing and why. But every so often we need to consciously do this.

In the wider context, this applies to everything that we do. It’s not about slogans and posters, it’s about thinking about what messages we pass on to our students. It’s about evidence-based pedagogy. Doing something just because everyone else is doing it is how nonsense like brain gym, learning styles, and other educational bunk slipped in when we weren’t looking.

This September, encourage trial and error; reward risk-taking; and applaud students who go out on a limb to try something different. Iteration is instinctive. Kaizen is king. But failing… failing is not OK. Please don’t tell your students otherwise.


Coda

If you must have slogan for your poster, or a snappy soundbite for your presentation, try this from the same Beckett story:

“Worse less. By no stretch more. Worse for want of better less. Less best. No. Naught best. Best worse. No. Not best worse. Naught not best worse. Less best worse. No. Least. Least best worse. Least never to be naught. Never to naught be brought. Never by naught be nulled. Unnullable least. Say that best worst. With leastening words say least best worse. For want of worser worse. Unlessenable least best worse.”

“Unlessenable least best worse.” That’s my next tattoo right there.


Stuff that has fed this post, in no particular order

genius.com. Beckett’s Worstward Ho with annotations

samuel-beckett.net. Worstward Ho with annotations

Mark O’Connell. The Stunning Success of “Fail Better”

Martinez & Stager. Invent to Learn: Making, tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom

Quote investigator: Edison’s “1000 ways”

Frank Dyer. Edison his Life and Inventions

Randy Pausch. The Last Lecture

ResearchED. Evidence based education.

Cro-Magnon image CC BY-SA 2.0 fr

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