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The Dreaded Failing Grade

“If that answer at the end of the page is wrong, or if she arrives at a dead end in her research, she has failed - no matter what she has learned from her struggle.” (The Gift of Failure, Jessica Lahey, 2015)

The recommendations I make in my book, The Education Kids Deserve, all have in common the need for safety in the assumption of risk. It is impossible to expect that anyone would be willing to expose and pursue their curiosity if they were not assured that it was being done in a safe environment. Pursuing activities that involve creativity and innovation, while critically important in the development of the learner, involve taking enormous risks - offering only the assurance that it is bound to be a bumpy road. One has to be willing to be vulnerable in collaborating in an inquiry investigation. The very act of communicating, whether it be verbal, written, musical or kinesthetic, can be very intimidating, if not down right scary. In taking the risk, we have to be prepared to be wrong.

“If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original. And by the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity. They have become frightened of being wrong. And we run our companies like this. We stigmatize mistakes. And we’re now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make. And the result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities.” (Sir Ken Robinson 2006)

We need to read that statement again and really let it sink in. “The result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities.”

The attainment of any level of success requires trying. Frequently, repeated attempts are required - attempts that will be predictably interrupted with setbacks and disappointments. For most people, unless they fall into the daredevil category, the very act of trying involves significant personal risk - the risk of blurting out an incorrect answer, the risk of tripping and falling, the risk of appearing foolish, the risk of a bruised ego. We all have varying degrees of risk avoidance. If we are to encourage someone to step to the edge of a high dive for the first time, we must be able to offer them believable assurance that the outcome will be okay - that they are safe and that we will protect them. In the absence of this assurance, many people (perhaps most people) will back away. We know, with absolute confidence, that students will experience setbacks. If we expect them to interpret the disappointment as useful feedback and to forge ahead with determination now that they have been informed by this new information, we must offer that same protection and assurance. Through a cycle of supported trying, students will build perseverance, resolve and a sense of hope that will propel them beyond the next setback. It is this quality of hope, of grit, that will allow students to pursue the satisfaction of their curiosity through the exercise of their creativity.However, students must never perceive these disappointing setbacks as failure, as an indictment of personal insufficiency. If they do, they will not be inclined to try again.

The very data we collect on student achievement, or the lack of it, has a dreaded outcome at the bottom. Consider the common, traditional, interpretation of the letter grading system used in the United States:

A = Outstanding performance

B = Above average performance

C = Average performance

D = Below average performance

F = Failed performance

Imagine you are a student who receives one of these marks in a course (you pick which one). If you received an A, you have bragging rights and the confidence that there is ice cream in your future. If you receive a B or C or even a D, you have reason for hope. In most systems these are all considered passing marks, though some would argue that a final D grade could also be interpreted as “barely above failing.” You could look at any of these three grades and speculate that there may be a path to moving from below average to average, average to above average or even above average to outstanding. They are instructive, providing you with something to talk with your teacher about. What each of the top four grades (A-D) have in common is they are, at least, vaguely descriptive. What does that “F” tell you? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. There is no suggestion of hope or any encouragement in “failed performance” or any indication of the rationale for the mark. Now imagine that out of your six classes, you received a “F” in four of them. How do you feel? Optimistic? Hopeful? Proud? Confident? I doubt you are feeling any of these. Rather, I suspect you are feeling defeat, perhaps even self-loathing if you care enough to care at all. Finally, imagine that is has been your experience for the past 6 - 8 years. In all likelihood you will transcribe “failed performance” to failed performer, vacating any urge to be proactive and, instead, personalize the label and shorten it to a concise “loser.” I wish someone could tell me that this doesn’t happen hundreds of times, every day in American classrooms.

The solution? We need to support classroom where struggle and error is normal and growth through mistake-making is celebrated.

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