July 27, 2011

Can Failure be an Option?

This post was last updated on 2 months ago at 2 months ago

Over the past several years, I’ve attended many conferences and workshops where speakers have talked about how all kids can learn and the importance of that belief. They also talk about how, if that’s true, it’s our obligation and duty as teachers to make sure all students learn and have success.

Okay, I get that. We all love kids and want them to succeed. If fact we want to design systems where no child is “left behind” and no child fails. Full proof schools where everyone is a winner. They unintentionally paint pictures of kids “not getting away with not doing their work”. These are not places of joy but places where come hell or high water, kids will succeed and if they fail, it’s the teacher’s or the school’s fault. What if it is the kid’s fault? Can they ever choose not to be successful? Should a 5-year-old even be considered a failure? Should a 17-year-old be allowed to fail? How do we create a gradual release of control or do we ever relinquish that control? The other huge misconception that is rarely explored under this philosophy is that all children, while they are capable of learning, aren’t all capable of learning the same thing at the same time in the same way. 

I’ve heard lots of talk about reducing the dropout rate. What I continue to see is a focus on changing the supports for these students and little in the way of making school, in general, a place that doesn’t suck. But really my question continues to be if we believe (maybe you don’t) that the kids should own the learning, shouldn’t they own the failure too? I’m not suggesting we simply create a smorgasbord of learning and then watch them sink or swim but I’ve witnessed educators spending countless hours hand holding and walking students through painful exercises designed to help them ‘get through” the curriculum. It reminds me of parents who do their child’s homework. To that end, it also reminds me of a quote from one of my favourite books:

“Information will be learned slowly and doomed to rapid forgetting unless they are quickly attached to a framework of knowledge that we already possess.”

The Book of Learning and Forgetting, Frank Smith

In some ways, this returns me to a previous post about personalization and standardization. I don’t have many answers and am really inviting some conversations, help me see what I may be missing but I’m frustrated with both the “no kid can fail” attitudes and the “kids own the learning but not the failure” thinking too.

The only thing I can think of that helps me work through these ideas is my own parenting. I obviously want my kids to succeed and yet they’ve all experienced some failure. My kids have all started into sports and music programs they decided they didn’t like and quit. Sometimes we made them persevere and on occasion, they discovered they liked it. As parents, we felt all our kids needed a basic proficiency in swimming and music. They didn’t have a choice. Some of them choose to go beyond the basics, others met the basics, then quit.  As they got older they chose their own paths. Altogether my kids have quit/failed at many things. Big deal. None of these endeavours, like school, are on the same level as Apollo 13. It’s not life and death. I’m not suggesting it doesn’t matter but whether or not a student passes algebra shouldn’t carry the weight if often does. I’m sure others will disagree. Feel free. 

Alright, I’ve been all over the map here, not my best writing but I hope I’ve started a few ideas we might talk about together. Should kids be allowed to fail? Under what circumstances? Go.