Book Review-Schools without Failure

With seven children in various parts of their educational journey, one could understand why I’d want to understand more about schools and what can be done to prevent failure. However, the truth is that reading Schools without Failure was triggered by a conversation with my friend Ben Gibson. We were exchanging emails about the idea of an integrated self-image and he suggested I look at Glasser’s work. Candidly, when Ben recommends that I read something – I read it. He’s been an educator his entire career. Currently on the school board in Bay City Michigan – where I attended high school – I know he’s seen education from nearly every point of view. As a student of his while in high school and at college, I know that he has a passion for students learning. Being honored to be called his friend, I know that he thinks deeply about how to make the process better for everyone.

However, as I’ll often lament, education isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Or rather, the way that we try to educate children and adults isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I’ve looked at the adult learning problem with Malcolm Knowles work captured in The Adult Learner. I’ve looked at education – life education – in How Children Succeed. Overall I studied the book Efficiency in Learning to learn what techniques decreased cognitive load and improved retention. Where those studies focused on the individual learner, Schools without Failure is more focused on the systems in play in the learning environment. (See The Fifth Discipline and Thinking in Systems for more about systems thinking.)

Conditioning in Failure

Sometimes the unintended side effects of our actions and behaviors are very problematic. (See Diffusion of Innovations). Sometimes we unintentionally make things worse. According to Glasser, that can happen by providing failing marks in grade school – and school in general. Carol Dweck discussed the problem of a fixed mindset – that we can’t change our situation – in her book Mindset. Effectively, we can discourage children into a state of “learned helplessness” as discussed in Boundaries and The Paradox of Choice and Change or Die. Conditioning in failure occurs beyond the classroom – however, there’s no reason why it should continue into the classroom. Girls in disadvantaged situations see marriage as their only option for getting out of the situation they’re in – even if they don’t believe their marriage will last. They feel like their situation is hopeless in part because of the community that they’re in. The social norms don’t value education and few people that they come in contact with are successful.

We learned in Switch and The Happiness Hypothesis of the Rider-Elephant-Path model which speaks of the subtle power that cultural norms have. When the cultural norm doesn’t include education and doesn’t include getting out of poverty that’s what students expect. That isn’t to say that there’s no responsibility for the student to lift themselves out of the muck; rather, it’s to understand the factors and conditions that lead so many students to give up. One of Glasser’s points is that you can’t accept that just because a student is disadvantaged that they will fail. There are plenty of successful people who have come from disadvantaged situations. The problem isn’t hopeless. The problem is hopeful for those teachers and students that know you can be successful with hard work.

Discover the Truth

Love, Self-Worth, and Identity

A lack of love while growing up has repeatedly shown up in the literature as something that creates problems downstream. How Children Succeed speaks of rats who are more adventuresome because they received more licking and grooming. How to be an Adult in Relationships speaks about how love is necessary and healing for us. Changes that Heal calls love the foundation for health. If you lack love you’ll have trouble throughout your life because you’ll have a soul hole that you’ll keep trying to fill.

As I’ve mentioned before (For instance in How to be an Adult in Relationships and Churchless ) the Greek have three words for what we call love in English – Agape, Philos, and Eros. Eros is the reason we discuss love in school – because the conversation can quite quickly turn to sex. However, Glasser suggests that in the context of school that love means social responsibility. That is love for your fellow humans.

Self-Worth is that fundamental belief that you are worthy. Daring Greatly told us that shame and guilt were barriers to our wholeheartedness. My review of Compelled to Control and Beyond Boundaries both discussed the integrated self-image, which incorporates both the concept of self-worth and the concept of identity – that is, that not only are we worthy but we know who we are. Schools without Failure calls love and self-worth two pathways to identity. That is, you can get to an identity by experiencing love or learning that you are inherently valuable.

The problem with many folks in their development of an integrated self-image is that one of the images will reject the other. In truth, we’re all both good and bad. Our good-self rejects the bad-self and vice versa. So we as humans find it hard to accept our whole identity. One part of our identity – good or bad – tends to rule and push the other part of our identity out.

Not Responsible for the Hurt, Responsible for the Healing

If you’ve been hurt by someone else you’re not responsible for the hurt. Whether they neglected you or they actively did something to harm you, you’re not responsible for that harm. However, you are responsible for healing yourself – with the help that you need.

This level of self-responsibility is an important but fine line that Schools without Failure seeks to illuminate. You have to accept that there are conditions that will cause students pain without absolving them of their need to be responsible for healing.

Sometimes (often) it’s the student themselves that are doing things to harm themselves. This necessitates the tricky proposition of illuminating the behavior or thinking that is causing the student pain without condemning them or inducing guilt or shame. We have to, on the one hand, allow them to experience the natural consequences of their actions while simultaneously trying to get them to stop the cycle that’s causing the problem.


Consequences aren’t always close or near. Animals and humans, we struggle to see cause-and-effect relationships when the cause and effect are separated in time. One of the places where this is particularly evident is when attempting to teach commitment as a value to our children.

Commitment is a value that, when missing, often has a very long term impact. Commitment itself is about sustaining over time. The impact of not sustaining over time is lower levels of success over the long term as seen both directly in the skill that the commitment would develop (See Outliers for the 10,000 hour rule for becoming a master.) It’s also seen in the perceptions of others as they don’t believe that you’ll meet your commitments.

Teaching commitment is accepting no excuses for not meeting commitments.

Commitment to Education

Sometimes people call a commitment to education lifelong learning – as The Fifth Discipline, Mindset, and Leading Change do. The Adult Learner, Finding Flow, and Change or Die talk about the role in continuing to educate, to learn, and to reframe our existence to continue to grow.

One of the best ways to learn commitment is to see it played out in our learning experiences in school. It’s one of the things that we’ll continue to do through our lives. Seeing the learning as a commitment can be powerful simply in that more educated professionals have higher earning potential. However, more broadly, being able to see the value of a sustained commitment can be life changing.

Unfortunately, most students see school as disconnected from their real life. They perceive that school has nothing to do with their real world. They believe the lie that you go to school to simply get a good job – not for their personal development as well. In part, this is driven by the preoccupation with memorization that we have in most school situations.

School for School’s Sake

Education used to be about preparing students for their lives. However, there is mounting evidence that schooling just prepares students for more schooling. I mentioned in my review of Emotional Intelligence that the Intelligence Quotient (IQ) was never really designed for the way it was used. It was designed to identify students that needed a different teaching strategy – not necessarily those that were brighter – or less bright. However, as schools have focused on standardized testing and memorization we’ve moved into a world where we’re focused on the skills that are least likely to predict success.

60% of students said that what they were learning in school wasn’t relevant to their lives. Studies of medical students found that grades were almost unrelated to their success in practice. Fundamentally, the way that we approach primary education is flawed. Students are rewarded for their memory, and in the business world today we tell people to not rely on memory.

In the world of the Internet, Google, and with search for computers and intranets, we want people to navigate and search for the information they need rather than memorizing it. As I’ve discussed in my reviews of Information Diet, Guerrilla Marketing, and The Paradox of Choice, we’re overwhelmed with information. We simply cannot hold everything in our heads that we might need. Socrates was right that books have done terrible things to our memories – we can’t remember all of the stories that our predecessors memorized. However, at the same time they didn’t have to cope with the level of information that we do. No longer is the goal to memorize information. The goal is to be able to integrate and access information.

To transform schools into something relevant we need to adapt the way that we structure the educational experience by making it more relevant (see The Adult Learner) and more focused on the higher level needs demanded in today’s workforce.

Critical Thinking and Problem Solving

In 1956 Benjamin Bloom and colleagues created what became known as Bloom’s Taxonomy. It is a hierarchy of educational objectives – only the first level of which is recognition and recall of facts. The higher levels of the taxonomy include things like evaluation, analysis (comparison), and synthesis of new ideas. It seems that we’ve known for some time that we need to move on from the minefield of memorization but, by and large, our educational system – which adapts at glacial speeds – hasn’t changed.

Glasser recommends three types of class meetings that he believes help to drive relevance, critical thinking, and problem solving into the classroom:

  • Social-Problem Solving – Meetings about how students behave in school.
  • Open-Ended – Meetings about intellectually important subjects including those problems that are wicked. (See Dialogue Mapping and The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices )
  • Educational-Diagnostic – Meetings designed to assess the learning that has been done.

Curbing the Grading Curve

Does anyone believe that a C grade is OK? It may be passing, however, most wouldn’t agree that it demonstrates a mastery of the subject matter. The reasons for this may be escalation and the ego’s desire to be perceived as better than the average. As I mentioned in my review of Humilitas, Thomas Gilovich surveyed one million high school seniors and found that 70% of them believed that they were “above average in leadership ability.” Certainly we have the ability to have a higher opinion of ourselves than is warranted.

However, shouldn’t good teaching skew the results toward higher scores? Shouldn’t a good teacher create in their students an above average understanding of a topic? So why then do some teachers continue to insist on bell curve distribution of grades? They insist on the same sort of standard distribution that discourages collaboration? (See Collaborative Intelligence)

Learning with Models

Students in Glasser’s surveys appreciated the class meetings that Glasser advocates, but admitted that they couldn’t have as candid a discussion if the discussions were graded and would sometimes resist the discussion by asking “will this be on the test?” Students were so motivated to reach the arbitrary goal of the grade that they didn’t want to have their time wasted with things that aren’t on the test.

The tragedy of this thinking is that the best way to score well in life isn’t by memorizing facts, but is instead to build mental models of how things work (see Sources of Power). Certainly the specifics of the conversation won’t be on any exam they’ll take; however, developing a model to help them understand what they’re learning will serve them long after the details of the learning are gone.

Class Meetings

I mentioned that Glasser recommends three kinds of meetings, and though they are relatively self-explanatory, the methods that Glasser uses to help those class meetings be successful aren’t necessarily. Here are some highlights from the approaches used:

  • All of the students and the teacher are in one large circle so everyone can see everyone else.
  • The position of the teacher in the circle changes.
  • Teachers move closer to shy students to better encourage their involvement and to disruptive students to minimize their disruptiveness.
  • Teachers should team-teach meetings where possible so that newer teachers can get tacit knowledge of how to run a class meeting.
  • Even though the meeting is open in most cases, students should be encouraged to raise their hands so the teacher can help to ensure everyone has an opportunity to speak.

Glasser admits that sometimes teachers aren’t able to have the kind of open facilitated discussion that he advocates in class meetings, and the failures he cites are the same sorts of adoption concerns that any new idea would have. (See Diffusion of Innovations) Facilitation is actually quite a different skill than traditional teaching and because of this it can be uncomfortable.

Rules, Self-Esteem, and Communication

There are some other insights offered by Glasser, including that students with less permissive parents have higher self-esteem. He’s quoting a 1968 article in Scientific American by Dr. Stanley Coopersmith which says, “A second and more surprising finding was that the parents of the high-self-esteem children proved to be less permissive than those of children with lower self-esteem….” In short, if you want your children to be effective, you should set rules. Coopersmith goes on to say “We found that the parents of the low-self-esteem boys, on the other hand, tended to be extremely permissive but inflicted harsh punishment when the children gave them trouble.” The advice from the age of Dr. Spock was permissiveness and individuality – something that he doubted later in his life. (See Finding Flow.)

Glasser also points out that we can bounce signals off the moon but still can’t communicate with our children. I think that his scope is too limited. We can bounce signals off the moon but we can’t communicate to each other. However, Glasser’s insight isn’t a bad start. See what you can pick up from Schools without Failure.

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