E=mc2 — beautiful failures
Albert Einstein, perhaps the purest symbolic icon of “genius”, had a knack for failing. His most prominent theory, E=mc2 failed seven proofs between 1905 and 1946 (1905, 1906 X 3, 1914, 1934, and 1946). He also messed up on clock synchronization, thermal radiation, quanta of light, gravitation, acceleration, bending of light, general relativity, quantum uncertainties and mechanics, and of course, the black hole. He also didn’t wear socks. Talk about the growth mindset! His ultimate accomplishments were either the result of a psychotic and blind ambition, or from a firm grasp of one of education’s most difficult truisms:
The success of meaningful learning CANNOT exist without failure.
Certainly, like the hitter in baseball, a woman or man tangling with quantum physics knows that on a good day they might succeed 35% of the time. Failure comes with the territory. Some of this is easy to “take”. Assumed “mistakes” that come from genuine guessing are shrugged off quickly. But in those seven proofs, over the course of 41 years, there appears to be staggering pain. We see an initial, young attempt, and then a furious three attempts within a year that seem almost desperate. Eight more years slip by before he musters up the energy to try again, and then another twenty and twelve. What can this tell us about teaching and learning?
Education is not just ours — the teacher and the learner within the confines of the American classroom. It belongs everywhere. A father teaching his daughter to make his red sauce — the two-wheeler pilgrimage — iron working — physical training — craftsmanship — yoga — recovering from addiction — eternal additional examples — these are each teaching and learning moments loaded with pedagogical skill, tradition, and expectations. Too often we talk about our classrooms as if we are in a bubble — as if we can’t be understood from the outside — our problems aren’t the problems of the world. This mindset makes it very easy to polarize failure. Within the “educational paradigm” failure is a job killer (teacher rating/APPR/tenure) and failure is misunderstood (AKA of course my kids aren’t learning, look at their home lives). Basically, in education, failure is a dirty word.
Let’s look at the electric guitar and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu to understand just how wrong we can be when it comes to letting failure live with us in our classrooms. You don’t have to be familiar with either to follow the analogy. A majority of educators might compare education to learning to play an electric guitar. You habitually pick up the instrument, toy with it, get some instruction, and begin to play. Your expectations are set just right. You don’t expect to be wearing spandex and playing to thousands of cellphone flashlights anytime in the near future. Each day you get a little better. When you play scales and you miss a note, it isn’t a failure. It is because you were trying to play faster. Or because you just learned it the other day. There is a progression.
Each time you pick up the guitar, it is the same. Its neck and strings act the same way. This is how we often teach and learn in America. You follow this low-risk formula, and you get better and better each day. If the learner eventually fails by some measure or standard, the failure falls squarely on their shoulders. Especially if other learners are succeeding with the same teacher.
Now take Jiu Jitsu. Many things remain the same. Practice, progression, repetition, and time all make a jiu jitsu player better. But do you know what can paralyze jiu jitsu growth? Fear of failure. This is because you aren’t working with a guitar and strings that remain the same every time you pick it up. You are working with a resisting partner who will act unpredictably each time. Therefore, the things you are learning, or the things you have put into your head, need to be applied in a high risk environment. Each offensive move or attack (success) makes the attacker vulnerable and open to failure. So those first hundred times through a scale on a guitar where you get better and better are equal to a hundred jiu jitsu failed attempts until you get good enough to succeed.
The real question is: Do we want to teach our children guitar or jiu jitsu? Spelling tests or persuasive writing? Math automaticity or problem solving? History buffs or hard-core debaters?
While Einstein loved to play the violin, his inner drive was that of a martial artist. I don’t think the eight, twelve, or twenty years away from his theory were truly spent AWAY. His full-blown attempts were made public because he was ready to tell his peers and the world that he would try again. But I am sure his time spent in between was stacked with failure after beautiful failure.
How can we build a culture that embraces failure? I mean, literally, making a space for kids to come in and try like crazy to fail. What would that mean? Would it involve modeling failure ourselves? This kind of failure can be shared personal experiences or taken straight from a lesson that fell flat. Think of the energy you might get from making it a goal to try new things and fail just so you can share them with your students. Can you think of a way to create more of your instruction so that success is built on failure? Doesn’t that magical word “rigor” inherently mean a majority of our kids should be failing before they succeed? Let me know your thoughts