The Re-Education of Alex Bruzan – Episode 5: Interviewing 1,000 Failures

What does it mean to fail in the real world?

I only came close to failing one class throughout my 20-ish years in school. I was newly married and working full time and, honestly, found whatever else I was doing with my time a lot more interesting. This particular class was some high level math where 2 + 2 = 5, because you can define + to mean whatever you want. Weird stuff. I didn’t actually want to take the class, but it was the only one that fit within my schedule. On the first day the professor, who sometimes would teach the class barefoot, gave us a pre-test which I bombed. I realized when I tested out of Calc 1 and 2 by taking the AP test in high school, I actually screwed myself over because I missed out on a bunch of really important prerequisite information that was on this particular pretest. I told him and myself that I would brush up on all of that stuff and everything would be fine. Halfway through the semester I hadn’t followed through with recovering any of the information I needed and didn’t do much of the required readings and found myself lost and confused about most of what we were talking about. I went in for help a couple of times and the barefooted professor was overly kind to me. On the day of the final exam I did the math and if I didn’t pass the exam I would have failed. This was the closest I ever got to failing a class. It was terrifying. I needed that class to graduate on time. I had no room for margin or error. It was this or nothing or at least it was this or start post college life 6 months later. It was the only class I actually had to try to pass. In fact, it might have been the only class I ever had to try at all.

During the spring semester of 2006 after 5 years of on and off stints in college, I was down to one test I needed to pass, otherwise the whole plan got screwed up. I studied, learned every weird math rule I needed to know, took and passed the test, and promptly forgot all of it. I understand why I needed to prove that I knew certain things in order to be awarded a degree in a certain field and that the passing of those classes was the same thing as saying Alex has learned enough to be certified as knowing how to do math.

In some ways the experience of cramming to pass an exam mirrors reality. If I have a presentation to give for work I prepare in advance and then before giving the presentation prepare more and more until I know the information and how to deliver the information backwards and forwards. In other ways the passing or failing of classes has nothing to do with or seems nothing like the real world.

I get that school is preparing a kid for the real world. We always talk about trying to give real world examples or, especially in math, finding real world problems for kids to solve. I think we say those things and try to create those experiences because school, by design, has little to do with the real world. I say this because the way we approach failure is backwards of any other way we look at failure outside of education.

Failure occurs when a child earns less than 60% in a course. Ideally, that means they have not learned 60% of the content they were supposed to learn. I say ideally, because who knows if it actually plays out that way. We have debates about formative and summative work with a percentage of a kid’s overall score attributed to work that was supposed to be a culmination of learning and a portion of their score based on what was supposed to be the process of learning. The ensuing debate that typically follows these conversations is around what is the appropriate percentage to give to each category. Does the meeting or failure to meet behavioral expectations matter when assigning a grade? Does homework count for something? Is that work formative or summative? How many of each assignment should we include?

All of those are fine questions to ask and fine things to debate and hash out. However, we don’t usually take the time to ask ourselves the question, should we even be grading anything? Should the work a kid creates be measured in a way that would allow for one student to succeed and one student to fail? To answer that question, we have to think about success and failure the same way success and failure is thought about in the real world, since that is the world we are all living in.

What are even the situations where failure is a plausible option? A marriage can fail. When that happens, what we are saying is that a covenant between two people is no longer something that the two agree to honor. The dynamics have changed and we no longer want to adhere to the norms that were created during the marriage creation process. If I wanted to, I could create a goal for myself and I could succeed or fail at the attainment of that goal. I could fail to meet the expectations I created for myself. Someone else might have a goal for me and I could fail to meet the expectations of that goal. At some point, if I repeatedly failed to achieve a goal, I would be faced with one of two options. Either my goals or the goals imposed on me are inappropriate for me or I am a failure.

Without a reframing of the purpose of school, students are only left with one real option for the goal of school, to graduate. Repeated failure, even failure at a rate of two semester long classes per year, discludes a student from success at the only expressed goal they have, to finish high school on time. However, almost none of the students I have ever talked to understand how that works. They have no conceptual knowledge for how they graduate high school based on the number of classes they have passed. If the only goal a student has ever known is to walk across the stage on graduation day and they are now mathematically eliminated from that being a possibility, I can see how they would easily and naturally draw the conclusion which we have been hinting at all along. They are failures.

Interviewing 1,000 Failures

We are pretty proud of the fact that we interview all of our new students. As part of the onboarding process, we want each new kid to have a conversation with one or more adults that work in the building. The point of those conversations is to understand where the student is coming from and start their time with us already having an idea of some of the assets the individual brings to the group as a whole.

The idea of interviewing or having a conversation with someone is incredibly basic. That is something I love about working at a school. The most basic concepts are sometimes the ones that seem the most out there or innovative. Even with our transition from a credit recovery high school to a project based high school, building relationships with our students has remained a top priority. It is simple, but keeps the needs of our end users (students and their parents) at the forefront of our decision making processes.

I read recently about this idea that systems are inherently created to push out relationships because relationships are seen as unproductive in an overly orderly system. Take an assembly line as an example. An example that isn’t that far off from a traditional school model (a kid travels from place to place receiving the next step in the knowledge distribution process). On an assembly line or in a factory relationships are unproductive. They are unproductive in that they hinder production. Time spent forming or maintaining a relationship takes away from production. Systems with relationships are much less humanizing than relationships with systems.

In an alternative school, attendance isn’t great. That’s a negative. The positive of that is sometimes you get to have longer conversations with kids when fewer of them are in a classroom. Those conversations look a lot like what we do when we conduct a new student interview. The questions are similar and the goal is the same – to understand the life experiences that have caused the disposition of the student (aka form a relationship).

I’ve worked in our school for ten years and can confidently say I have had these types of interviews or conversations with at least 100 students each of those ten years. With the exception of this year, each of those years, every single student was credit deficient and every single one of them thought they were not going to graduate high school at some point during their high school tenure. Almost all of them saw their transfer to a credit recovery school, our school, as a signal of failure, a failure to accomplish what seemed easy for the rest of their peers, the only goal they had.

You learn a lot about school and life when you talk to so many teenagers that already view their short lives as a failure. Patterns emerge. Dots are connected. It becomes easier to understand how a sixteen year old can become apathetic toward education in general. I get why they assume learning isn’t for them. At that point in their lives they have become accustomed to failure. An F here and an F there leads to another and another. Then some serious life event happens or a bout of depression halts their momentum and everything hits the fan. Whether reality or perceived, basic needs aren’t met and the additional pressures of school are either too much for the child to handle or attempts to push through are done so in vain because the benchmarks required for success are not met.

When you work in a school it easy to understand “the game”. Go here. Do these things. Write this down. Remember these steps. Apply this skill in this way. Because it is so easy to understand how to “win” at school, it is even easier to assume that every child should understand how to do the same thing. When you interview 1,000 failures, it becomes clear that not everyone understands how to win. Not everyone understands that they can win or that they might even want to consider trying to win.

It is much easier to have empathy for someone when you realize your job is to invite them into an educational experience instead of forcing someone to comply with a series of directives they derive no meaning from. Empathy builds relationships which allow you access to share your own experiences which can then motivate an individual to change for the better. Once they have bought in, you can then teach them the game and show them that anyone can win and that they should want to win.

We operated that way for a while – bringing kids in to experience education in a different way. Something happened, though. I could show kids how not to fail. I could teach kids to pass classes and raise GPA’s. But that was still using the old definition of success. If a graduate came back two years later to say hi, but wasn’t in school and wasn’t working and had no prospects of either happening in the near future, we failed. Interviewing a 1,000 failures taught me to think differently about what success and ultimately the goal of school should be.

The point of school is to grow a child into a high functioning adult that has marketable skills (or access to additional education to obtain or refine a marketable skill) that they can take into the marketplace to provide an appropriate level of income for themselves and potential future family members. Throughout that process hundreds of other small skills are taught in themes (things we call classes). While those hundreds of small skills have value, the emphasis is on larger skills that span a variety of traditional content areas and career tracks. These skills end up narrowing down to what are known as the Deeper Learning Competencies.

I have interviewed about 200 seventeen year old future trades workers that knew they were going into a trade and decided by their junior year of high school that there was nothing of value left for them to learn in school. In a traditional view of student success, I kind of agree with them. Passing Algebra 2 or Physics probably wouldn’t add much value to their lives. However, If the metric for success is focused more on marketable skill attainment, then they had a lot to learn. All of them could have been better problem solvers. All of them could have communicated more effectively. All of them could have benefited from working together with a group of people that thought differently than them. All of them could have begun working through mastering the content that they would need to possess to succeed in their intended fields.

Throughout the last ten years I noticed something odd happen. I wasn’t sure, so I did a little investigating. This is one of those no judgement no shame statements. I don’t blame anyone or judge anyone for what I am about to say. I don’t want to blame or judge because any energy put into creating a defensive stance is energy that won’t be spent fixing the problem. The last year we only took credit deficient kids was the 2018/19 school year. That year we graduated about 125 students through our programming. All but 11 (that number could be off by a few in either direction depending on our parameters) of them where students of color, poor, or had serious mental health challenges. Either way about 90% of the students that were behind in credits fit one or more of those parameters. If there are three subsets our our student population that I would never want to feel like a failure, it is students of color, poor students, and students with serious mental health challenges.

I wonder what would happen if we systematically shifted the narrative around student success. We have already talked about reframing the purpose of school. I don’t think that means we have to blow up every single structure we have or do school so radically different that we have to start over. The process of creating an educational experience that doesn’t alienate failures would first do away with the idea that failure is even an option. You are not allowed to participate in a narrative that would make you think you are a failure because we no longer talk about success and failure; we only talk about growth, growth toward having access to marketable skill acquisition. Instead of valuing the system and the perpetuation of the machine mentality we perpetuate the valuation of relationships and build systems to produce similar levels of production.

A growth based system for reporting progress toward the goal would not include percentage based scoring around work completion. It would give an accurate representation of that progress, which would take the form of feedback. All that would matter would be a kid’s progress toward the goal. At some point the goals of individual kids would begin to diverge. Two students with two different career tracks would have two pathways. The work a kid planned to do as an adult would dictate as much of the curricular decisions an anything else. Enough kids with similar pathways would allow for clustering of instruction and would we could end up with something we are all familiar with, classes. The difference is that those classes now have purpose because a student should be able to articulate why the particular class is useful to them achieving their goal.

This might be a utopian dream and not actually do-able. Or at least only parts of it might actually be do-able. One thing that for sure can happen is we can see failure in a different light. Teaching is emotional. Teaching is hard. Teaching can simultaneously be insanely rewarding and debilitatingly depressing. It is both personal and interpersonal. You simultaneously have power and control while also being seconds away from chaos. The only thing an educator actually can have absolute power and control over is their own mindset, how they see what is going on around them.

If there is never a change to any system or structure, if there is never any pushback on how things are and movement toward how they should be or could be, the bare minimum an educator can do is reframe how they view failure by a student. Of the 1,000 failures that I have interviewed, none or almost none of them wanted to feel like a failure. None of them wanted to fail. They all wished that they hadn’t. They wanted to succeed. They all wanted to be “normal”, whatever that means. None of them liked the resulting outcomes they currently found themselves in the midst of. It’s not that they all wanted it to be easy, they just wanted it to be as easy as they perceived it to be for everyone else.

What we should see instead of a student that failed our classes, is a student that is crying out for help. When we see it as a cry for help, we can also see all of the little things that go into failing a class as a cry for help too. Absences, behavioral issues, and what appears to be disengagement is actually a cry for help. It is either a cry that says that this isn’t working, or it is a cry that says I need something and I don’t know how to articulate it, or it is a cry that says I don’t understand what they point of all of this is. A cry for help on a factory floor can be dismissed for the sake of production. A cry for help in a community built on relationships is a lot harder to dismiss.