Imagine that you are cooking-challenged like me, but you have decided to surprise your spouse and make dinner. Although you really despise cooking, your spouse is absolutely deserving of your efforts in trying to make a sumptuous meal. You carefully select a recipe, sneak out to buy the ingredients, and painstakingly follow each step laid out in the cookbook. As the entree is baking in the oven, you set the table, shine the cutlery, try to fold the napkins into some sort of linen flamingo, and polish the wine glasses. Candles and a twelve lemon centre piece, and it's all set. You can't wait to see the look on your spouse's face because you have truly given this endeavor your all.
But imagine that when your wife comes home, the first comment she makes is "What stinks?". She then walks up the stairs and says "I really needed those lemons, you know." when she looks at the table. She comments on the fact that you used the cheap forks and knives, and that the wine glasses are actually the martini glasses and not suitable for the wine. And when she sits down and samples the meal that you spent hours on your own trying to concoct especially to meet her needs and you ask her how she likes it, she turns and looks at you and says "I would give this meal a 3 out of 10. I think you need to re-do it."
How would you feel about cooking dinner in the future? Imagine the special set of skills that you would need to call from your reserves to be able to rebound from this evaluation to want to come back and cook again for your spouse. I am going to guess that even as a well-adjusted and confident adult, this single experience would haunt you (and your spouse) for years. You failed at cooking dinner.
Recently, I saw someone tweet that we should "stop protecting kids from failure". Statements like this make me angry. Do you know which people tend to say things like this? People who have experienced a great deal of success and very little failure in their lives. Business people, doctors, lawyers, teachers, people who have "been through the school of hard knocks" and have made it through to the other side, they feel that somehow "failure is a great teacher". They all say that things like "I experienced failure in my life, and it made me stronger!".
I have a couple of thoughts about this. Did these people really experience failure? I'm not talking about flunking a spelling test or failing to get their Driver's License the first time around. I am referring to repeated failure, every day. Maybe not so harsh as the dinner experience above, but rather that you are a 3 out of 10, a 28 out of 100, that you "are not yet meeting expectations". Or when something is explained in your class that everyone else seems to get and you don't get it. Ever. Or that one time that you put your heart and soul into a project, hours of your time to study for that test, or endless checking to make sure that lab is just perfect, only to get it back littered with red ink and that big "F" or "Re-do" on it, much like the dinner above. Do people who say that we "learn from failure" mean THAT type of failure? Maybe the quick retort here is "there are not that many students who experience THAT type of failure". Really? In the
The other thing that many people who postulate that failure is a good teacher forget is that often time, when they experienced "failure", they had a support network around them. Perhaps they had caring parents with high expectations who had nurtured the appropriate assets so that they were resilient enough to be able to deal with failure. They might have had a peer structure that stood by them motivated them to rebound from failing. Or they were lucky enough to be in a school structure with a set of interventions that put a safety net under them to catch them when they fell through the cracks. These cornerstones for dealing with adversity are often the very things that at-risk students lack in their own lives.
I think we need to put an end to the myth. Failure is not a teacher, WE are the teachers. The act of failing is not motivating in the least, and if you think it is, just go ahead and try to recreate the dinner scenario above and see how that affects your relationship with your spouse. Failure teaches nothing. It is a summative term, and we need to concentrate on the formative processes and stop labelling things as failures. With respect to my dinner analogy, it is the hard-work and thought that really counted, and the learning that came from following the recipe and creating the meal. That you didn't quite achieve the desired taste explosion is disappointing, however, with some guidance and encouragement, perhaps you would be willing to try again.
I would rather think of targets, guiding, and precision. There is a target, but we can get there in many different ways. Our job is to guide students towards that target, and to help make the arrows that they fire at the target more and more precise through a series of refinements that are always made with that final target in mind. And WE are the ones who make "failure" an experience that students can recover from. At a conference that I saw in
Failure doesn't make at-risk students want to come back to hit that target tomorrow. Failure is little more than a descriptor that comes moments after you quit. I say protect kids from failure at all costs, because we never EVER want them to quit.