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Failure


“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.”


Those words were spoken by Sir Ken Robinson during his famous 2006 TED Talks Education presentation titled “Do Schools Kill Creativity?”. Robinson, a brilliant thought leader who championed the deliberate inclusion of creativity in schools, sadly died in August 2020.


Let the essence of his remarks sink in for a minute. To paraphrase, we are teaching people to fear making mistakes and that being “wrong” must be avoided at all cost as we educate people “out of their creative capacities.”


That would be dreadfully sad if it were’t so true.


Jessica Lehey expanded on this train of thought in her 2015 book The Gift of Failure. She asserts that parents, teachers and society at large are all complicit in the “crime against learning” which occurs when children are expected to abandon their natural curiosity in exchange for the pursuit of achievement, which we typically define very narrowly: good grades, trophies, financial scholarship awards, college admission. However, by encouraging students to focus on this path solely, and to subscribe to this definition of success specifically, “we teach children to fear failure. That fear destroys a love of learning. 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.”


Let’s play that again. “That fear destroys a love of learning.”

How did we get here? How is it that we have so stigmatized failure in our classrooms, as the worst possible thing that can happen to a child?


We need not look further than the antiquated and inaccurate system we use to report on student achievement: a letter grading system that suggests an “A” equals brilliance, a “C” suggests “average achievement” (whatever in the world “average” means) and the ugliness of a “F” is a stain that is difficult to overcome. In truth, these five letter marks and the algorithm of percentages they use as justification tell us very little about what a child knows, the skills they posses, or the degree of individual progress that he or she is making. If anything, they are a decent indicator of the degree that a student demonstrates compliant behavior in assignment completion. But, little else.


Buried in the inadequacies of that system is the tremendous power those grades hold. Including the power to do harm.


Grades of A, B, C or even D may provide occasion to celebrate or at least suggest a degree of hope. After all, each of these are considered “passing” in most systems, allowing credit to be assigned. However, the last one, the dreaded F which typically is translated as “failed performance,” is a different matter. Put yourself in the shoes of a struggling student. 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 it 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 assure me that this doesn’t happen hundreds of times, every day, in American classrooms. Sadly, that assurance is not possible.


In my overly simplistic, though accurate way of thinking, there should be only one reason to assign a F to a student as a summative mark. That one and only instance would be if the child simply did not try to engage in the work assigned. And even in that circumstance, the “F” shouldn’t be interpreted as “failed performance” but rather as “no performance/lack of evidence.” I’ll discuss this further in next week’s post.


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.


(Portions of this post are excerpted from Chapter 7 of my book The Education Kids Deserve.)



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