The Mythbuster Philosophy of Education: Failure is always an option.

Pop culture does teachers few favors. Most teachers on television are either boring busybodies who lecture ad nauseum (think Ben Stein’s character in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) or energetic zealots who inspire students to learn through sheer force of charisma (Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society.) Perhaps I’m naive, but I think a lot of new teachers go through a stage where they feel like developing their own teaching style consists of finding a way to lecture without putting students to sleep and inspire without telling students to ritually sacrifice the introductions of their text books. I say this because in the beginning of my teaching career, I felt like I was navigating this dilemma: how do I deliver content while still being interesting?

The longer I teach, the more I realize that neither of these models is anything to emulate. Lecturing as the sole means for delivering content is a bit like trying to build a sandcastle by tossing mud at a pile of dirt at twenty paces: some of it sticks, some misses the target, but most washes away in the next tide. Charisma is nice to have and can certainly be a tool, but it only gets you so far; without a solid structure to the lesson being taught, you’re not maximizing your assets.

That’s why the best teachers on television are on the show Mythbusters, and if you’re looking for a philosophy of education to emulate, they offer a lot.

Image source: tvclash.com

For those who haven’t seen the show, which is now in its tenth season on Discovery Channel here in the US, the Mythbusters design experiments to test out the plausibility of myths and other urban legends. On a lot of science shows, the goal is to condense expert knowledge into nuggets that can be shared over the water cooler. On Mythbusters, the founding premise of the show is that a lot of those water cooler nuggets are unexamined truths and questioning and testing that knowledge can be a lot of fun.

I don’t imagine that the educational benefits of Mythbusters are intentional. The show’s hosts, Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, worked primarily in the special effects industry before the show started, and the three co-hosts, Kari Byron, Tory Belleci, and Grant Imahara, came from similar backgrounds. None of them, to my knowledge anyways, have a background in education (although if you watch the show long enough you find out that Hyneman has done almost every other type of job.) Still, Mythbusters presents an attitude towards science and learning that every teacher can borrow from.

In the age of “standards-based education,” I can think of several educators who would hesitate to sing the educational praises of a show that gleefully promotes itself with the tagline, “Failure is always an option,” but decoding that phrase teaches us a lot about the Mythbuster’s philosophy of education. In this video, Adam Savage explains how he originally came up with the phrase to put on crew hats earlier in the show, noting that “it’s not just a joke; it’s actually really the cornerstone of our approach to the scientific method.” (If you want to see the clip, you’ll have to watch through to the end or skip to about the 2:00 mark.) To that end, the editors in the clip intercut video of him falling on his back while trying to climb the outside of a building using a vacuum rig, which he wraps up by saying, “Any result’s a result.” I’m aware that Savage is delving into hyperbole to call the phrase a cornerstone of the show’s scientific model, but from watching the show, which I should add that I do with almost a religious-like zeal, I’m guessing there’s a kernel of truth in the piece.

The people behind Mythbusters succeed because they are really good at failing. Each episode runs 44 minutes without commercials, and the standard show has them testing two myths with Savage and Hyneman testing one and Byron, Belleci, and Imahara testing the other. They fill the time by explaining the myth in question, designing small scale tests, and then ramping them up to full scale tests, which often require massive builds and frequent resets. That structure is designed so that things go wrong. If everything works the first time they try it, they haven’t got a show. (Case in point, in a recent “behind the scenes” show, the co-hosts shared video of the team confirming a myth of a gas-filled van exploding when the owner pressed the unlock button on his key fob. The show never made the air because after it worked the first time, they had nothing else they could show.) Fortunately, things often go quite wrong, but as viewers we get to see these failed tests, and more importantly, we get to hear them talking through what they can learn from them, and we see them recalibrate. We get to see the process by which they make that failure mean something other than a negative result.

Let me stress: the real educational value of Mythbusters is not that they are never afraid to fail or to learn from their mistakes. The real value in the show comes from its emphasis on process: they demonstrate how to, in Samuel Beckett’s terms, “fail better.” The  Mythbusters’ approach to a negative result is not to say, “Well, failure was always an option, so let’s do another myth;” instead, they go back to their planning stage and question their methods and assumptions, which leads to more genuine learning than most educational philosophies offer.  For example, a student armed only with the knowledge that they need to learn from failure will take a very narrow view of failing a test. What they’ll learn from doing poorly is that they had the wrong answers. At best, that student takes away from the experience the idea that they need to work harder. At worst, that student takes away the idea that they are simply bad at that subject and they shouldn’t try as hard. A student in that same situation who follows the Mythbusters’ approach will go back to question their preparation for the test and plot out a strategy for improvement.

There’s a lot of good learning theory behind all of this. The “failure is always an option” philosophy and the process that it encourages places the show squarely in the constructivist theory of education. In this approach,  learning comes from experience and informed, practiced reflection on that experience. The goal of the show is to take viewers through as many steps of the process as they can. Of course, the best scenario for learning would be to be involved physically through the entirety of the process, brainstorming, designing, and building to keep learners in that zone where they’re constantly exposed to challenges that are just a bit harder than they already know how to complete. That would make the end results even more meaningful. Still, as a fan of the show, I can say it’s pretty satisfying spending twenty minutes watching the hosts dream up an experiment and then execute it.

Mythbusters will never replace a high school or college math class as a means of delivering the content side of science: only about five percent of any episode is made up of segments where the hosts of the show turn to the camera and explain the science content behind the experiments they run. But all teachers could learn from the way that this science content is delivered. The show’s hosts don’t start the episode off by saying, “Here’s what a stoichiometric ratio is.” That information is shared, but it comes in after viewers are already thinking about how to solve a problem presented by the hosts and it is always connected to the context of the process of testing the myth. Often times, this information will be presented after an experiment has failed to yield the expected results, which is the perfect time because active viewers are sitting there asking themselves what went wrong and searching their memories for an explanation. The context changes the value of the scientific knowledge. Suddenly, it’s no longer an arbitrary fact about chemisty; it’s a piece of a puzzle you’re trying to solve.

We don’t all have access to high velocity explosives, a budget that allows us to toss burning cars off cliffs, or any educational reason to do either, but the principles behind the Mythbusters‘ approach are readily transferable. Focus on process more than the results, practice informed reflection to try and understand those results in a larger context, and most of all, understand that failure is always an option, and because of that, the best learning happens in environments where failure can be made into a meaningful impetus to move forward. All of that is especially critical to a field like writing where so much of the response to a sentence or paragraph that won’t work demands creative thinking about potential solutions. Perhaps more importantly, all writers need to find ways to get past the feeling of failure that inevitably come up in the drafting and revising stage of writing because if they don’t they’ll end up thinking they’re a terrible writer and quit. For my money, we all could do a lot worse than reacting to all these moments by spray painting “Failure is always an option” on the side of two tractor trailer trucks and crashing them into each other.


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Good Writer, Bad Writer

Good writer, bad writer reflects the philosophy behind the first writing lesson I attempt to teach students. Too many of them come into college believing that their writing abilities are set in stone. The bad writers continue to struggle, and the good writers don't take enough risks in their writing, figuring that any misstep will throw them back into the "bad writer" category.

Good writer, bad writer is my attempt to break the power of that dichotomy. On here, I share the lessons and attitudes that I teach, but I also talk about the attitudes I have towards my own writing since many of those have informed my own teaching. Thanks for visiting.

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