Learning from failure

This is an important speech at the Commencement of Harvard University in 2008 by the famous Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling. In the speech she discusses her early life and the way that she feared failure. Yet she had to deal with failure and poverty being a young divorced mother living in conditions that she states are “as low as it is possible to get in modern Britain”.

It was not that she failed that is key to her later success but how she learnt from her failure and her drive to achieve success. This very much reflects the ideas put forward by Carol Dweck in her book “Mindset” which sees two reactions to failure. There is the one that sees failure as a challenge and wants to prove people wrong who say that you won’t amount to anything. Then there is the second type of mindset… of failure as the end of the world.. of defeat and stoppage.

Once Rowling stopped fearing failure and saw it part of a process that could eventually lead her to success she was able to keep herself going writing the first Harry Potter book in places like cafeterias. The book, once finished was not an overnight success but she persevered and this led to the publishing legend that is “Harry Potter”.

Her loss of the fear of failure was key to this process and reflects so many other very successful people who have failed but have continued to persevere and have won through.. a prime example being Thomas Edison who made hundreds and hundreds of failed inventions but succeeded in inventing such things as the lightbulb and the phonograph which helped to transform the world (and also led to great success as in the case of Rowling).

Not everyone will become a bestselling author or invent a transformative invention but the ability to have the positive mindset to know that failure is a stepping stone towards success is one that schools need to encourage. It means that we must not cut students off with a “you’re not good enough” if they fail an exam or a test, but look for where they can develop and eventually find their own success….. the future of our species may one day rely on someone who was at one time considered a failure but did not give up and was able to prove he or she could succeed and that failure was a key part of that process.

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Storycorps: the voices of America

I am not American and in fact I will state that unfortunately in my 57 years on this planet I have just stepped one foot into the country when I was at the border with my Canadian uncle and aunt on vacation in Winnipeg, Manitoba in 1972!

I have always had a real interest in the country, coming as I do from Britain and being brought up in the 1950’s with many American T.V. programs like “I Love Lucy”, “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and reading Superman comics (as well as Batman, Spiderman and even Superdog!).

I used to listen to the late great  Alistair Cooke and his weekly “Letter From America” on the radio. It painted such a good picture for me about life in his adopted country and felt really good coming from a Brit like myself who was broadcasting back to the land of his birth.

I was excited as everyone was at the election of John F. Kennedy to the Presidency in 1960 and felt that this was the first time that the election of a U.S. President had real impact on us over here in Britain. The assassination in 1963 would also hit us hard. We cried along with the whole world at the sight of Jackie Kennedy and her two small children acting so dignified at the state funeral.

I read some of the great classics of American literature as I grew up, especially (as I have written elsewhere in this blog) Harper Lee’s wonderful “To Kill A Mockingbird” which left a lasting impression. I was also very moved by John Steinbeck’s work and felt the need to tackle Norman Mailer and watch the plays of Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill.

I felt that I had an idea about America and Americans and having family come over from Philadelphia and San Jose, California, I actually got to meet some real ones!  But what I had, as I now know, was a mental construct. It may well be similar to the mental construct that many Americans have about my country.. i.e. that we live in constant rain, that we often wear bowler hats and say things like “jolly good show” or alternatively that we are all cockneys (like the awful impression of one that Dick Van Dyke did in Disney’s “Mary Poppins”) and say things like “wotcha mate!” ).

I was delighted therefore when I came across an organisation called “Storycorps”  http://storycorps.org/ This is subtitled “The conversation of a lifetime” and it is nothing more or less than that. It is an organisation where people have sought out all kinds of Americans and got their story recorded.

I have now listened to many of these talks ranging from immigrants from Mexico, to businessmen in California to old people recalling their past lives. Everything and everyone is here and more often than not I find myself in tears listening to their wonderful stories and most importantly their deep feelings for each other.

I did not really know America before but these stories tell me about the lives of real Americans… the struggles, the highs and the lows and they present us with real people telling real stories. It is a priceless resource and one that all Americans should be really proud of. I wish we had an equivalent organisation here in Britain.

Below is a link to an  animated film of one of the Storycorps interviews. It is a boy with Asperger’s syndrome talking to his mother about their relationship. It is a good example of many many such interviews. If you haven’t accessed the site yet I would strongly recommend it… it is truly wonderful and there are new interviews coming out every week.

Q&A from StoryCorps on Vimeo.

The Digital Immigrant’s Tale

The ship sailed towards the golden  land. He was frightened. What would he find? How could he cope?

The nearer he got the more his mind took him back to the land he had grown up in. This was a simple way of life. He had grown up knowing the ways of his ancestors. He was taught the things that they knew and that had been passed down for generations.

When he had gone to his school they had taught him to  read and write. He could grasp a pencil very early and he could make marks on a piece of paper. Then he came across books and he had “Janet and John” with those lovely pictures of happy children smiling in a happy world.

He grew up writing stories by pen in an exercise book. They were good stories he was told though he always had problems in holding the pen properly and his writing could make his hand ache.

He remembered the first time that he encountered something different. One Christmas, when presents were being distributed as they always were. He had been given a Meccano set. His brother has been given a toy typewriter. He had never really enjoyed making things out of nothing, his brother had an aversion to writing and  but loved creating things from string and sticks or getting some construction kit and making a model from what seemed like little bits of an impossible jigsaw.

Later, when he had settled into his new Digital land, he would find out about a man, Sir Ken Robinson, who would write a book that told about finding your “element”. He knew that his element was not in construction and his brother did not like writing. In an inspired moment worthy of the judgement of Solomon, his parents decided to swop the gifts around.

He faced the typewriter which worked very slowly and laboriously to put letter after letter onto a piece of typing paper. It was magical to him. He found that he could write and that with his writing came communication to others. It all came so easily.

But when he went to school he still had to fill up the exercise books which he struggled with. Why couldn’t he use a typewriter which he always found so easy to use? Because it just wasn’t done. He had to stick to the ways of the elders and he found frustration in seeing the beautiful writing that others produced.

But there was a problem with making mistakes… there was an insistence on the use of pen and so, if mistakes were made they had to be crossed through. Writing, it seemed had to be done on your own and there was no room for mistakes or your beautiful exercise book would look awful and you would be corrected about your presentation.

“WHAT ABOUT THE CONTENT!” he felt inside as he raged against the strictures of the society that bound him up. That did not allow his creativity to express itself and that judged his writing  in all subjects on the basis of presentation that he found difficult.

He had a problem with research as well. He knew that he could access the wise words of his betters by copying great chunks of their text into the body of his poorly presented writing and that he might get a good mark from his teachers for this. He could not play around with their words or get access to many other sources… most times there was just one textbook that was his only source of information.

He always worked alone. He did not discuss his work with others and he did not really think deeply about what he was writing. His audience was his teacher and he knew what his teacher wanted, even if he couldn’t always give it to him or her.

He grew up and by one of those  strange quirks that life doles out, he became a teacher. He found that he entered a world where he had to teach others in the same way that he had been taught himself. He forgot about his own frustrations with writing in exercise books and gave out the exercise books for his children at the beginning of each term. He smiled ruefully to himself as he remembered the way that he always thought that the exercise books looked so wonderful on that first day when they were new and in  pristine condition and before the pupils would have to struggle to put words in them with the same problems that he had always encountered.

As his long teaching career progressed he encountered things that were happening in the land that he was now heading towards. About twenty years ago he bought his first word-processor. It was an Amstrad machine and was dedicated to just one task… the electronic processing of words. But this was amazing to him. The typewriter of his youth had been replaced by a machine that could change text fonts, size, alignment and be corrected easily for mistakes. He could edit his work by looking at it carefully and deciding whether a word needed changing or a paragraph needed to be removed. It was as if he had discovered a magical kingdom.

The lure of the magical kingdom grew greater because there machines that the kingdom produced grew stronger and more capable. Then one day he was introduced to a powerful new thing… THE INTERNET.

This was indeed the most powerful change that he had seen in his lifetime. He found that he could access so much through this powerful new thing. He climbed on board the ship that was sailing towards this golden land of knowledge unlimited.

He found that as he progressed through the waters towards this land he could not only access the knowledge but that he could add to it, he could collaborate with others and that they would direct him to where new knowledge lay, that he could communicate with others and that they would find what he had to say useful and sometimes, important to them.

During this time as he carried on with what he liked to call his “learning journey” he encountered those who had been born and bred in this golden land. These were the “digital natives”. They did not know anything different from the power of the internet and the ability to facilitate communication, networking, socialisation in a world which they saw as an open global platform.

They seemed at ease with every new development and they took to the flexibility, the power and the potential as he had to holding that pen in his hand when he was young.

As he grew nearer the shores of the  golden land he knew that he did not need to fear. The natives he had met had shown him that there was nothing to fear (except fear itself.. to quote a famous phrase). Here he was embracing their world and loving every minute of it. He couldn’t wait to land.

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Blogging Room

The cartoon above took me just a few minutes to make up. I discovered the program “Toondoo” as a link from a Tweet (as usual) and have entered the wonderful world of computer cartooning.

I was never very good at art at school and was put off by the idea of drawing anything.. although I was asked quite often in my primary schooling to draw pictures which put me under great pressure. I wonder how many other children have been asked to “draw” some picture to illustrate  their writing and have known that they do not possess the ability to create the pictures that they would like to see or that they may have in their mind…. what comes out is often some ill-formed and immature drawing that in no way resembles the thing you are trying to represent.

Imagine my delight therefore when I discovered this wonderful program. I could use my imagination to think about the size, shape, colour, orientation of the picture that I could download or create very easily.

I immediately saw the possibilities for letting children who like me are unable to draw to actually get something as a finished product that represents their ideas. The use of text adds to the possibilities. These cartoons can be used as diagrams, as stories, or by teachers (or pupils) to create questions for others….. the possibilities are almost endless.

More importantly, this program allows the pupil to be creative and to think of what they want to say and how they want to say… and what picture or image will get across their message.

I spoke about cartoons in a recent post “my learning journey to Maus” https://malbell.wordpress.com/2010/05/29/my-journey-to-maus/ and was delighted to have the chance to actually play around with cartoon creation myself.

There is though more to this program. You can download other people’s efforts and there is now a social networking site that has been set up by the Toondoo people called Toondospaces http://www.toondoospaces.com/ this is where you can set up a collaborative, sharing toondo community. I can see lots of potential in this.

Below is a Toondoo by Midnightduke8 from Portugal. You will see that it expresses his (her?) interest in football… it is bi-lingual and gives you some idea of the power and potential of this program. Look it up and give it a go… you never know what you (or your pupils) can achieve!


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