Failure is an option
The preservation of a child’s self-esteem has come to be the most important goal in education for many teachers and parents. Since failure is believed to be damaging to self-esteem, it is normal for teachers to design assessments in a way that limits the possibility of failure. But counter to these intuitions, failure is not damaging to children, and may even be good for their learning. The WSJ article cites a 2012 study in which a cohort of sixth-graders in France were given a set of problems that were too difficult for them to solve. One group was told that failing and doing it again is a normal part of the learning process. The other group was not told this. The first group did better on subsequent tests than their peers.
I remember listening to a lecture in 2006 by a distinguished engineering professor who was heading up the National Science Foundation’s efforts to improve Engineering education. Producing larger numbers of qualified engineers is a national priority because of the economic benefits of innovation. A gnawing anxiety is that countries like China and India will outcompete the U.S. eventually because they are graduating more engineers. When I asked what reason there was for hope in future U.S. competitiveness, his reply surprised me. The main advantage the U.S. has over other countries, he said, is a cultural one: people know how to respond well to failure. In these Eastern nations, failure is ruinous, but in America we have seen failure as an opportunity for growth and improvement. He then referenced a long-standing policy of Hewlett-Packard that if people leave the company to start businesses, HP will hire them back with a promotion if they fail, believing that the experience of venturing out on their own yet failing results in better problem solvers.
I worried then that we were at risk of losing that mentality. It reminded me of a professor at Georgia Tech who revealed to me while I was in graduate school that they (professors) were discouraged from failing students anymore and thus it was rare. That was before I started teaching. I am more worried now that our educational system is not teaching kids to deal with failure by not even allowing failure to be a real possibility.
Failing students is hard. There is nothing enjoyable about it; no self-interest in it. In fact, the system is set-up such that it is in teachers’ self-interest not to fail students. It results in more work for you (e.g. conferences with parents, tutoring, etc.); and when you are held accountable for your failure rate, it is implied that failure is a result of your deficiencies as a teacher, not the fault of the students. Thus, teachers have all kinds of gimmicks (like ‘curving’ tests and dropping grades) to avoid failing students.
How will people who never experience real failure as children ever learn to respond to it in a healthy way? And when they eventually experience it as adults, instead of being seized as an opportunity for growth (i.e. redemption of failure), it will just crush them. Or more likely people will minimize the risk of failure by avoiding difficult tasks. Imagine the loss of entrepreneurship and innovation if people are unwilling to risk failure!
As parents in this culture, you should be more alarmed if no one is failing the classes your children are taking than if a lot of people are. For if failure is not a real possibility, then passing the class means very little in terms of what a student has learned. And if passing the class requires very little learning, then making A’s and B’s in the class is likely not much of an accomplishment either. In a truly rigorous learning environment, students will feel the real possibility of failure if they do not perform at a certain level. But when they do fail a test or assignment, a good teacher will be right there by their side, admonishing them to learn from the failure and to use it as an opportunity to grow. Teachers that won’t fail students, or parents that make it difficult for teachers to do so, are robbing the kids of an opportunity to learn the priceless life skill of redeeming failure.