Sumo Wrestlers, Happy Meals, and School Redesign

Two short passages in two very different books have me thinking a lot of about the nature of school redesign.

In Midnight Sun , novelist Jo Nesbø follows a gangster named Ulf who is running from people who want to kill him. Ulf hides out in the Northern Norwegian village of Kåsund. There he meets Lea and her son, Knut, for whom Ulf becomes a father figure. Late in the novel, Knut and Ulf are wrestling with each other. Knut gets frustrated at losing, so Ulf encourages him to be like the legendary Sumo wrestler Futabayana who started out by losing a lot of matches:

Knut: Does losing make you better? 

Ulf: It makes you better at losing.

Knut: Better at losing? Is there any point in being good at that?

Ulf: Life is mostly about trying things you can’t do. You end up losing more often than you win. Even Futabayana kept on losing before he started to win. And it’s important to be good at something you’re going to do more often, isn’t it?

Knut: I suppose so, but what does being good at losing actually mean?

Ulf: Daring to lose again.

In The End is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome conservative author Kevin Williamson writes about the development of two staples of modern society:

Looked at with fresh eyes, McDonald’s is science, its restaurants are laboratories, and that Happy Meal on the table in front of you, like the IPhone in your pocket, is a product of evolution, highly refined by countless tiny revisions through dozens of iterations moving toward a more perfect expression of its ineffable Happy Meals ethos – by no means moving in a straight line, but guided by the gift of failure in the direction of less wrong. Over time, less wrong looks pretty good…

So there you have it, a great metaphor for school redesigners is that they are losing sumo wrestlers who can’t get anything right.

And that’s exactly what school redesign needs.

Just think a minute about your own teacher leader record. I bet if your add it up, you have a win-loss record as bad as the Philadelphia 76ers (9 wins, 66 losses as of this writing). Luckily, your impact doesn’t depend on winning; it depends on you being daring to lose again. That’s because even though you may have objectively failed to meet your goal, you’ve almost certainly left your school less wrong. And with enough losses your school will have been less wrong enough times to call itself a more perfect expression of excellence.

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