Should Failure be an Option in Schools?

Learning From Failure PostersWhat does it mean to fail in school? This past week I chatted with some high school students and asked them that very question. Most of their answers revolved around grades and grading practices:

  • “It means you got a bad grade.”
  • “You have to repeat a class/grade.”
  • “You did not study for a test.”

I also asked, “Is it ever OK to fail in school?” Again, most of their answers revolved around grades:

  • “If it is early in the semester and you can pull your grade up.”
  • “If it is an elective course.”

This little exercise made it clear to me why there was such a heated discussion during the August 16 #satchat focused on learning from failure. Some participants felt it was a disservice to students to allow them to fail and then try again. While I blatantly disagreed with this viewpoint at first, I believe I now have a better understanding of their opinion.

Scenario 1:

A student receives an assignment, which they complete and submit. Subsequently, the student receives a failing grade for this assignment. The student is told they can make the assignment up and their grade will be changed. The student talks to their friends and does some extra research,completes the assignment again, and receives a slightly better grade.

Based on this situation, I agree with the “failure is always bad” folks. This student did not enhance their understanding of a concept or display perseverance. Improving a grade was the driving motivation in this task.

The most recent ASCD Ed Leadership (September 2014) featured the article 4 (Secret) Keys to Student Engagement by Robyn Jackson and Allison Zmuda. I enjoyed many things about the article, but “Key 3: Create a supportive classroom culture” specifically addressed an appropriate method for supporting failure in the classroom. “The idea is to anticipate the common mistakes or misconceptions that learners may have or the obstacles they may come up against and put supports in place ahead of time to eliminate or mitigate as many of these as you can,” (Jackson & Zmuda, 2014).

Scenario 2:

A student receives a new research project. The first step is to select a topic and provide a five sentence justification. The student is not completely sure they understand the project, but they select a topic of interest and complete the assignment. The teacher reads the summary, asks the student some clarifying questions, and then the student revises their plan.

The formative structure put in place by the teacher in this scenario allows the student to take a risk without the fear of impacting their final grade. Providing structured supports throughout an activity is very different than allowing a student to fail and just make up the assignment because they got a bad grade.

A final thought:

Learning From Failure Posters

Additional posters about learning from failure.

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