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To fail or not to fail

There’s a compelling challenge around the word “fail” and all it’s derivatives. If we accept the truth that the words that we use shape our reality, it becomes especially troublesome given the current climate.

On one hand, we’ve got the idea behind makerspaces, hacking, and a call to help students experience failure and success like Jessica Lahey describes in her book. Failure is good.

On the other, we’ve got bloggers writing extended thought pieces about how many and why children fail the tests. We’ve got public school advocates talking about failing schools. Failure is bad.

Failing. Failure. Fail. Where I a linguist, I would be studying the ever loving daylights out the fact that those with opposite positions on so many issues in public ed use the same word in so much the same way. Which of course, raises questions:

  • Why are we using the very language we want students to embrace to create a climate of fear?
  • What makes an eight-year-old think they failed a test?
  • Who is it that describes schools as failing?

I spoke up once about this tension before and was told in no uncertain terms: “until you are appointed my editor, I will use the word “fail” to describe these lousy tests in every way possible.” I wrote a post about the semantics of state tests and was told that we don’t have to use the words “failure” for an eight year old to know they failed.

 So which is it?
If it’s the former, failure is good, then let’s stop talking about kids failing a test they can’t fail. Let’s stop talking about failing schools and talk about under-resourced schools. Let’s force people to talk about specifics instead of abstracts.
If it’s the later, and failure is bad, then why are we surprised when high schoolers are afraid to try or kids are stressed about taking a state test that has no tangible impact on them?
In either case, I suspect if we don’t our linguistic house in order, the feedback loop continues.
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