Sunday, September 20, 2015

English: Failure hurts, but it does not define me.

This cat is for Rolin Moe; it's a response to what I think was his serious misrepresentation of Carol Dweck's ideas about failure here: Rationalizing Sisyphus (and you can read the comment I left for Rolin pasted in at the bottom of this post). In her book Mindset, Dweck emphasizes how a growth mindset responds to failure differently than a fixed mindset. With a fixed mindset, you let the failure define you: "I am a failure." With a growth mindset, failure does not define you; it is feedback, information you can use to do things differently next time. Failure hurts, and sometimes it can hurt really badly. The point is not to let that failure define you.

Here's a quote from Carol Dweck's book: When people believe their basic qualities can be developed, failures may still hurt, but failures don't define them. And if abilities can be expanded — if change and growth are possible — then there are still many paths to success.

The image is from cheezburger.

Failure hurts, but it does not define me.

Here is the comment I left for Rolin:

As someone who is working with growth mindset both for myself as a learner and in my classes also, I want to assure Rolin that it is more than just coffee mugs and motivational posters — but such motivational paraphernalia can also come in very handy as a way to connect with students. So, in response to Rolin's article, I made a LOLCat inspired by this passage from Carol Dweck's Mindset: "When people believe their basic qualities can be developed, failures may still hurt, but failures don't define them. And if abilities can be expanded — if change and growth are possible — then there are still many paths to success." You can see the LOLCat here:

In a Twitter exchange with Rolin about this article, Rolin suggested that my students need to read more Beckett. Given that Beckett is one of the "bleakest authors on the human condition" (as Rolin describes him), I think I'll stick with Dweck instead of Beckett. I have no interest in celebrating failure, but I very much want to free my students from their often paralyzing fear of failure; Dweck is a big help with that, and it sounds like Beckett really would not help with that much at all.

Setting Beckett aside, I'm not sure where Rolin got the idea that Dweck is a "failure celebration." Dweck instead emphasizes the idea of failure as feedback, separate from the labeling of smart or stupid, separate from institutionalized reward or punishment, etc. In fact, one of the things I like best about Dweck is the way that she warns of the dangers of labeling students as "smart" and the reward of "A" that ends up putting arbitrary limits on learning.

In any case, as long as school labels student failure with "F" and puts that label on the transcript, teachers like me, who throw out grading (#TTOG), have a lot of work to do. For me, Dweck is helping me to do that work. Rolin argues that failure is personal; I disagree. Failure should not be anything personal, but unfortunately my students take the grade of "F" very personally. I am using Dweck's idea of a growth mindset to help them move beyond that, from failure-as-personal to failure-as-feedback. It has nothing to do with Beckett, but it does have everything to do with getting beyond grades to self-directed learning instead.


  1. Hi Laura,

    Thanks for taking the time to articulate your thoughts. I understand your passion for Growth Mindset; it is a passion I do not share, but I appreciate it.

    I think our conversation is happening from two different places and we are nowhere close to the same discussion. Example - in our Twitter conversation on 9/17 I had a long Tweetstorm about what my article says (Failure is built into the societal education-as-superstructure, my take is that efforts to appropriate the term for other meaning may have localized meaning but are not changing anything on a policy level, and the conversation about 'failure' on the policy and PD level is dangerous for this very reason), and what resonated with you was the line at the end about reading more Beckett, which was tongue-in-cheek (serves me right for trying to be funny on the Internet). You have put "failure celebration" in quotations twice when referencing my article, a phrase I did not say about Dweck but rather about Branson, Musk, etc. I'm not trying to nit-pick; rather, I think my early #growthmindset is bunk advertisement of my article had you reading this as an attack on Dweck as my intention...which while I am not disagreeing with my critique of her, the article only mentions Dweck for a short period while the gist of the piece is much more about our cultural reappropriation of a term with a finality in educational discourse.

    My critique of Dweck in the failure motif is in this effort to reappropriate on a larger level. You disagree, and that's fine, but I am taking a sociocultural and critical read on Dweck's 'Mindset' and seeing how it is playing in a larger conversation. This is not a misread, this is a theoretical lens I take efforts to note. Self-help works for a lot of people, and it seems to work for you and your courses. But self-help is not going to change systemic issues, and the failure conversation as happening in education today is replacing systemic difficulties with a gung-ho, by-your-bootstraps conversation about getting beyond failure. You might say that Dweck is not responsible for Duckworth, but the appropriation of a self-help psychology book into education circles (there is plenty of education research saying what Dweck puts in self-help language...but the edu lit does not call it failure, because failure has a foundational definition in the world of formal education) is dangerous, and that is the connection to Dweck. You may disagree with my conclusion from the way you teach growth mindset, and that's what's wonderful about postmodernism; it can work for you without negating my postulate. My argument the entire time is that there is a dominant paradigm about failure, and Dweck either explicitly or implicitly plays into that, but her writing on failure is moving people to look at structural inefficiencies in education and label them individual inefficiencies. It's great for the individuals who do that...but in the world of education we are creating a conundrum where we tell people to embrace failure but do it in a system where failure is foundationally a great negative and finale. That's why we have PBL, struggle, trial-and-error, design-based, activity, etc.

  2. Your comments did not let me finish, so I have a wrap-up paragraph:

    This is where Joe Bower, Alfie Kohn and Jerome Bruner are arguing, and I am happy to take their flag and stand with them. Failure is personal in that it is about the individual...and if your students create workarounds from failure, that's fine. I made my stance on formal grading evident -- I am not interested in a system of letters but in a place that encourages learning and transformation. But as a scholar I see my practices stand in stark contrast to political and social conversations, where failure is married to grit and the problems of the system are put onto the student as baggage. My argument is that we solve that by engaging the litany of historical literature in education that does not talk about failure as good or growth, but that uses educational terms to talk about what we seem to want to do in the failure conversation. Otherwise, IMO, our use of failure perpetuates rather than challenging the dominant paradigm.

    1. Rolin, you contend that Dweck is part of the "good failure" movement, and you also contend that she is "in contrast" to iterative-based learning, process, trial-and-error, etc. That contention is simply not true, and to characterize her in that way is what I am objecting to. You put her in your paragraph about what you are calling the "‘Fail Like Beckett’ discussion of failure as a positive in education," and I think you are wrong to do so. She is NOT "choosing to appropriate the negative term in a positive fashion" (as you say in that paragraph), which is why I chose the quote from Dweck that I did in this post.

      In terms of your larger argument, it seems to me you are creating a false dichotomy between self-help advocacy and institutional/systemic critiques. It is exactly BECAUSE I want to create a space for growth for my students that I am engaged in and MUST engage in institutional critique, rejecting my school's grading system, rejecting my school's use of the LMS, rejecting my school's typical test-and-grade approach, etc. If you think that the kinds of work teachers do at the classroom level is irrelevant to that larger critique, I think you are missing out on some of the most important work being done to change the system, bottom-up instead of top-down.

      And, I repeat, I am not telling anybody to embrace failure. I am telling them not to fear failure, and not to let it paralyze them. That fear of failure permeates academia, and I suspect it is one of the biggest barriers to pedagogical innovation; on that, see Mariana Funes's brilliant posts on fear here: On wrestling your inner MOOC and here: Of monsters, contemplation and information. Fear is the problem; not failure.

      As for the mess that is the argument in Alfie Kohn's Salon piece, I've written about that here: Is It Growth Mindset If You Grade It? (I say: no.). Mutatis mutandis, much of what I wrote there applies to your equating Dweck's work with that of the gritmeisters et al.

      Thanks for this; it was much more useful than tweeting I think. :-)

  3. We will not bridge this chasm, I believe, but I will leave it at this -- Dweck is responsible for her language, and she is writing about overcoming a fear of failure and purporting it to education. The dominant paradigm of failure in education in discourse is a Silicon Valley Fail Better mantra, and Duckworth has directly linked her work to Dweck, a link Dweck has been happy to promote. Dweck is in fact trying to turn the negative term into a positive rather than using the language of educational research.

    This, from my 5000 foot view, is problematic. You disagree. The only time I ever challenged your disagreement was when you took aim at this piece as lacking scholarship, which is untrue. You have a different read on growth mindset than I do, but that does not mean my piece lacks rigor.

    1. I still don't have any references for Dweck supposedly promoting the reduction of growth to grit (a charge Kohn also made without references), but your article did prompt me to reread Dweck's Mindset one more time (I made new cats from that...), and your charges (and Kohn's) still seemed driven by something very much outside the text that I still do not see there. Meanwhile, my "outside the text" context is my own classes and at least right now, midway through the semester, the main thing I see is that making growth mindset an explicit part of the class is making a very positive difference for my students.


I've set the comments for Google accounts only (but no word verification), or you can contact me by email ( or at Twitter (@OnlineCrsLady). Due to some totally annoying spam, I'm moderating right now.