I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.
Failure. It sounds like a total loss--maybe even loaded with shame, disappointment, crumbled self-worth. But failure is actually a key element of success. Many “successful” people, from Michael Jordan to Winston Churchill, have waxed poetic about the insights they’ve gained from falling short. Einstein even said, “Failure is success in progress.”
The key here is knowing the difference between destructive failure and productive struggle.
Let’s take the common example of a student who is struggling in math. The school decides the best course of action is to pile on more math. This student now has algebra, at which she was already struggling, plus a math tutor, plus extra math homework. Instead of everyone learning from the student’s math struggle and growing (Maybe the teacher wasn’t approaching the subject well? Maybe the student is stressed out in other areas? Maybe the student really missed taking art and was unhappy to be at school?), they continued down the path of destructive failure. Now the student is struggling, but also hates math, has decided she’s a complete failure, and never wants to discuss numbers again. Period. Finito. The hallmark of destructive failure is that it leads to a sense of inadequacy. The student now blames herself.
What if this had become a productive struggle instead? The math teacher realized this student was having a hard time and altered the curriculum in a way that made sense. The teacher discovered how much this student loved art, and he decided to teach math through art. Now the student can see numbers in a whole new way, has more art in her day, and is happier to be at school. Success in math has led to a boost in self confidence for the student, plus bonus growth for the teacher. Productive struggles are vital if we want to evolve and become empowered.
Unfortunately, students frequently experience destructive failures in these situations. On top of that, they’re afraid to take risks and fail, even in subjects they love and understand. Part of this is the extrinsic motivation present in our modern school system. Students are trained to work solely for good grades. If they have those--or if they believe grades are the be all end all--they don’t want to risk their GPA. This risk aversion has bled over into every area of their lives, and they nearly always play it safe. When you don’t take risks, you don’t fall. And if you don’t fall, you can’t find a new way to get back up.
What’s interesting is when a student learns to listen to intrinsic motivation, they can actually surpass students who are just working for grades. Student A and Student B enter a classroom. Student A has more inherent skill. But Student B is willing to take chances. Because Student B pushes himself out of comfort zones, he’s able to grow more than Student A. Student A has a good grade, but they haven’t really improved much. Shouldn’t we be pushing for more Student B’s instead of churning out more Student A’s?
Of course, I used to be a Student A. Thankfully, taking a bunch of art classes exposed me to critique. Tons of students (and adults, let’s be honest) fear critique because it can be rough on the self esteem. But over time, I started craving critique. I could take those comments and suggestions about my art and use them to get to the next level. I started painting and photographing in new and improved ways. If we start integrating critique into early education, students will grow up learning to experience and enjoy feedback. Even the negative, albeit constructive, kind.
It seems there might be some truth behind that buzzword: grit. Angela Duckworth, basically the queen of grit, defines this quality as “a combination of passion and perseverance for very long term goals.” If we help students develop grit at an early age, they’ll have the desire to see things through. To not give up. To learn from failures and adopt a growth mindset. But how do we do it? After all, it sounds less straightforward than a photo lesson plan.
According to Mary Cay Ricci, we should first focus on the environment: how we treat and prime students for these grit-focused behaviors, setting expectations: how we expect students to fail and respond. We use the vocabulary: how students describe their learning experiences in detail, actively creating healthy struggle: how students are appropriately challenged, monitoring the experience and focusing on the process: how we make sure to jump in when students are leaving the goldilocks zone of challenge--the window of opportunity between, “This is getting hard” and “I quit.” Then we must allow students ample time to reflect: too often I see teachers rushing to the next lesson without pausing for reflection. Without this step, students won’t truly absorb the experience.
In my classroom, I highlight the students who struggled and grew through the process, rather than just the predominantly high achievers. I ask students to vocalize their struggles and we collectively problem solve with the student. Not only do students grow from their own experiences and failures, but we’re all able to learn from each other’s struggles and successes.
It’s important to coach students through tough assignments so they can appreciate mistakes. When they see errors as a sign of weakness or incompetence, they’re likely to make more mistakes. But if we help them make room for wrong answers, they’ll learn to have successful failures and a true growth mindset.
Imagination is the ability to think of things as possible - the source of flexibility and originality in human thinking.
I should be working on my remote learning plan for summer school that starts next week (I found out yesterday that I would be teaching a class that doesn't lend itself to remote learning), or focusing on my research and development of teaching imagination, or my recent deeper dive into SEL, but...
This makes me feel guilty to say, but I'm a bit paralyzed at the moment to make connections outside of what is staring us all in the face. I can only think of one subject, I'm stressed, and worried for the future more than normal. I find it telling how my inability to connect outside of the obvious, and how the stress, and fear stifle certain types of my imagination, while other areas of my imagination are running wild.
I felt compelled to write this before trying to do the work I mentioned above again, and I am reminded of all the work I should be doing to help our country heal.
This post might ramble a bit. I will connect what I'm feeling with the work I have been doing; how curiosity, imagination, and emotional intelligence can be a source of solutions to our larger problems. It includes some journaling and thoughts I have shared on social media.
I saw a police car rushing down the highway when walking with my kids yesterday (I live on the North Side of Chicago right near the highway). I imagined that this person was just called away from his own children and sent into an impossible situation in which they were likely to fear for their life and the lives of their children because it was their job. I thought about how I might respond in that situation and felt a deep empathy for all the good people trying to serve the way they know how and in the way that was offered them. I also imagined that a few might be far too eager to respond with extreme aggression, and how that increased the danger for the officer just wanting to hug their children tonight.
My heart shifted to all the brave protesters who have had enough, feel desperation, some who feel rage, some who feel fear, and also love, maybe all at the same time. I was then compelled to try the impossible effort of imagining and empathizing with what it’s like to be bird watching and have my life threatened simply because of the color of my skin, to have spent my life working to prove I’m more than my skin color, paying my way through graduate school, becoming a doctor or professor and all that being meaningless if someone decided I fit the description of a nondescript Black person who might have committed a crime, the police officers doing their job and questioning me, asking me to get in a squad car while I think of all the other destroyed, once beautiful Black bodies.
I’m called to question a society that has a violent healthcare system because, well, profit; that has too many unnecessary inequities to list, in which segregation on top of a history of oppression that stole from and violated our Black communities, and worse, then forced into poverty without much access to anything, and now struggled through a pandemic with higher death rates than their White families.
I’ve seen the looting. It makes me very sad, but not as sad and angry about a history of oppression and violence which could have ended a long time ago. As a previous small business owner I know what that pain of watching your livelihood burn feels like. I see a lot of unnecessary pain. I know there are creative solutions which are much larger than a few bad police officers, the solutions our brave protesters are fighting for, a fight we keep sending more police officers and military into that seems similar to pouring alcohol on a flame. There are many people who are smarter than me, who are experts in their fields, who have answers to a lot of this, but just as every student requires unique supports in a classroom, every community does as well. One size does not fit all.
Stop ignoring people’s pain. Period. We are all products of this system. Some of us have benefited more than others, some in extreme ways.
As I watch that squad car zoom down the highway towards downtown I felt guilty and uncomfortable because I was having a beautiful walk with my kid on my shoulders. I hugged his little arms closer and prayed he would know a better world, one in which his Black friends and their parents didn’t have to fear death and lack of opportunity because of their skin. I thought about what I could more of or give up to make sure that became a reality.
Love, true equity and then justice helps us all.
Why blame the looting on the protesters? Why blame all cops for the crimes of a few? We are all made less safe by a system with so much inequity and injustice. There are solutions if we are ready to change/grow and that means a lot of us have to give something up, make sacrifices for the many. It requires deep reflection, listening, and questioning of our biases. It never ceases to amaze me how many people who say they want change cringe when it means they have to make some changes.
If this isn’t a time of mourning and reflection leading to growth, I don’t know what is. What is your field of expertise and how can you make changes for the better in that system? I'm a teacher and that's the place I have agency in to change. All systems are designed to perfectly produce the results they produce. We have to ask why and listen to the experts who have devoted their lives to answering that question.
Love is the answer. Not tolerance, but love.
Murray Hunter has identified 8 types of imagination:
Empathy is one of them - which allows our imagination to connect with others and feel what they are feeling, connecting emotionally with what others might be experiencing.
Effectuative imagination combines information to synergize new concepts and ideas.
Intellectual (or constructive) imagination originates from a defined thought structure, is well developed, often ending in a well-articulated hypothesis.
Imaginative fantasy creates and develops stories, pictures, poems, stage-plays, and more expressive, surreal forms of narrative.
Strategic imagination is a vision of ‘what could be’, the ability to recognize and evaluate opportunities by turning them into mental scenarios.
Emotional imagination serves as a bridge for emotion to emerge from our psych and manifest as feelings, moods, and dispositions.
Dreams are an unconscious form of imagination made up of images, ideas, emotions, and sensations that occur during certain stages of sleep.
Memory reconstruction is the process of retrieving our memory of experiences and relationships (prior knowledge) consisting of a mix of truth and belief.
Kieran Eagan argues that imagination develops in about 7 stages in a logical order. Abstract thinking and Metaphor are two of those stages. Abstract thinking allows us to move beyond the concrete and to separate meaning from objects. To move beyond the facts that appear to be present in the here and now. There are obviously some dangers in that type of thinking. Metaphor, an extension of divergent concepts, broadens the meaning and impact of initial connections and is a major shift from binary thought in that a single concept can hold multiple meanings at once; profoundly implicating our relationships with physical reality, cognition, and comprehension.
I have always found comfort in the notion of duality. If you develop your imagination, it becomes easier to simultaneously hold that violence is never the answer, that love is always the answer, and recognize that so much of what we have built has come from violence; whether that’s from a World War (helped us solve economic issues), or on the backs of slaves, and so many other examples, such as our animal agricultural system which is part of the daily violence we choose to ignore on a daily basis
A great artist once said, “I create through destruction.” Savannahs and other beautiful landscapes are formed only after fires, or earthquakes, and hurricanes, plate tectonics, etc... Much of our beauty comes from destruction, is reborn out of the ashes. A Phoenix would be an appropriate metaphor. Destruction of property is one thing. The murdering of people and destruction of flesh is another.
We have to be extremely aware of who and what has been harmed as a result of that destruction and honor them during rebirth. We must recognize and share in the pain caused by years of oppression. This requires empathy for the oppressed and the oppressors.
I believe we can have the imagination to build a future of love. We do not focus on teaching love, socio-emotional intelligence, curiosity and imagination and as a result openness, empathy, reflection, growth, and the ability to see new possibilities outside of our contemporary paradigms. This is the call I feel compelled to answer. To urge my fellow teachers to also answer that call. Thomas J. Sergiovanni said something to the affect of, "I believe it will be the teachers who rise up against the unsustainable educational climate of standardization and seize the motivations and methods of artists." We must rethink our priorities. Imagine a world full of people who have developed their empathy, actualize the 5 SEL Competencies, and regularly engage in the creative process.
We must all be willing to change, to destroy our past selves. Everyone must be willing to challenge their bias through intense self-reflection and painful growth. There is much pain in love. Growth is also often a painful experience. I’m working on this as much as anyone. It requires a culture of curiosity built on an openness and even welcoming of criticism as an opportunity.
I think it’s time someone else in our system bared the brunt of the pain. Our underserved communities can’t take it anymore. We have consumed them in violence and ignored their peaceful attempts to promote change. So many aspects of our system are responsible. Our Justice System, Healthcare, Economy, and Education are some big ones.
We must get to work.
"Imagine all the people."