Last weekend, I watched one of my favorite movies, Apollo 13. It’s one of the movies I always find myself watching whenever I see it is playing. As I was watching, I found myself thinking about all the times I’ve seen this particular film referenced in educational circles. One scene that gets a lot of play depicts the engineers at Mission Control figuring out how to make a round carbon dioxide filter fit in a square opening using only the items available to the astronauts. This is an incredible demonstration of problem solving, critical thinking, and creative/non-linear thinking all rolled into one – a skill set we need our students to embody. I love that part of the movie.
There’s another very well known section that shows Gene Kranz (played by Ed Harris) giving a brief monologue that ends with the famous quote, “Failure is not an option!” It’s a wonderful bit of writing and acting. I’ve seen this clip used multiple times and in a lot of different contexts to convey the sense of urgency that everyone involved in educating children should feel. But, after thinking about it a bit, I have a real issue with the semantics of that particular quote. I think it can communicate the wrong message. The older I get the more I realize that nuances matter. In fact, I think they matter a great deal. To paraphrase Mark Twain, the difference between the “almost right word” and the “right word” when writing is the difference between a lightning bug and a lightning bolt. The way the word failure is used in this context is counterproductive.
Failure is good thing for learning. In fact, it’s essential. Everyone learns through successive approximation. Learning is iterative. Significant, meaningful learning takes time, effort, and failures. If a task comes easy, or success happens right away on the first attempt, the learning was probably not rigorous enough to be meaningful. Permission to fail is a crucial ingredient to healthy growing, learning cultures. Failure should be celebrated as a learning opportunity. Removing failure from the learning equation, hinders creativity, inhibits critical thought, and in short stifles true understanding. However, I don’t mean to imply that we should accept failure as a final result.
I’ve also been reflecting lately on Carol Dwek’s excellent work on “mindset.” If you haven’t read her book called Mindset or at least seen the chart, Growth-Mind-Set, that differentiates a “growth mindset” from a “fixed mindset” you really should check this out. This is powerful thinking. If you look at the chart I’ve linked, it’s pretty clear which mindset is more desirable. I understand there are many factors that differentiate these two paradigms. But, the two that stick out to me as being essential are the ideas of effort and persistence. People who embody the growth mindset persist in the face of challenges and always give a high quality effort. Obstacles (and subsequent failures) are viewed as challenges to be embraced. To me, this is the core message of the Gene Kranz speech in Apollo 13. He was exhorting his team to accept and embrace the problems that stood in their way. Giving up and/or not giving a best effort were the non-options and unacceptable. Educators face multi-dimensional, complex problems every day. Failure should always be an option – in fact it should be viewed as a logical, best option. However, what is unacceptable is if we do not embrace a worthy challenge or give our absolutely best, sustained effort for the students we serve.