Sunday, December 12, 2010

Failure doesn't teach kids, WE do.

I am a terrible cook.  While I DO consider myself to be a bit of a whiz on the barbeque (meaning I seem to be able to convince most guests to eat most bits of beef or processed meat that I churn out on the grill), I am not very talented when it comes to cooking of an indoor nature.  I am a heck of a dishwasher and cleaner-upper, and quite a housecleaner and lawn technician, so I do have some value in my household.  But make no mistake, I fail miserably when it comes to the culinary arts.

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 United States, there will be more than 1 million children that drop out of school this year.  Do you see a significant percentage of those having some sort of "A-ha" moment and heading back to school?  I don't.  Failure hasn't taught those students anything, and I am not sure how we would say that it has made any of them stronger.

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 Vancouver several years ago, Rick Stiggins made a very poignant statement--"It's not whether students hit the target we set for them today, it's whether they come back to try and hit the target again tomorrow."

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.


  1. Cale - an obvious push-back to your post, is that if we don't allow for failue we are not preparing kids for "the real world." This does have some merit. We have responsibility to prepare students for the skills that they will require after they leave high school - and this includes the ability to deal with adversity and failure.

    I think for our students most at risk, you are right on. We feel if they only fail enough they will realize that they don't want to fail anymore and the light will go on and they will start to succeed.

    The challenge for many of us in education is that while we get this on the conceptual level - our own reality has been quite different. While we can point to obstacles we have overcome, we are largely all champions of the K-12 system - our schools are full of teachers and administrators who experienced relatively little failure in school.

    I liked the comment this week I saw that wondered if our students who have dropped out would have been more successful if we had only tested them more - we do often continue to measure students in the hope this will lead to improvement.

    I will defend the comment about needing to expose students to failure - to say that I think many of our top students need to be given permission to take risks and fail. I do see a lot of very strong students too scared to take risks because they have come to see failure as exclusively negative.

  2. Hi Cale,

    You're definitely right, WE teach kids! When students experience success, either partially or fully, they are most likely to come back and try again. A major part of our role is to identify these successes, however small or large they may be and recognize our students for them.

    I agree with Chris that we need to encourage our students to take risks. And along with those risks comes the potential for not being completely successful or not being completely successful YET. I like to frame students' accomplishments in terms of SUCCESSES rather than failures.

    A big key to having kids return to a challenge is their RESILIENCE. As educators we need to frame every incomplete success as a CHALLENGE and pump our students up so that they feel the encouragement to tackle it.

    On the weekend, the basketball team I coach experienced a tough loss to open a tournament. It was definitely an incomplete success. Through breaking down the areas that required improvement and emphasizing the importance of bouncing back with a strong effort, the team stepped up with two of the best team efforts so far in the season. They could have walked away after the first game disappointed and dejected, having experienced failure but we chose to have them walk away with a challenge in front of them and knowing they were capable of much better.

    We do the same things with our students in our classrooms. And when we do so, we see our students step up to meet challenges, experience more frequent successes and display more resilience. The challenge for all of us is to do this more often!

    Thanks for your post!


  3. I think you're right on target with regards to one thing: failure does not always teach kids anything except to give up, unless, we as educators are there to help them make sense of that failure. We certainly want our students to fully experience the "real world" but not before they are ready to take it on with resilience and determination. Failure by itself does not instruct. It takes teachers and educators to help students learn from that failure. Thanks for the reminder with your post.

  4. Thanks for your comments!

    Chris, I think that the term "failure" is misused. Failure has a very negative connotation, and likely it should. I still believe that we should be considering "adversity" or "challenge" as opposed to "failure". When I hear a student "failed", it has a very different ring to it than when we say a student "was challenged" or "dealt with adversity". The latter two make it seem like they can persevere and get through it, the former makes it sound like they need to start all over again.

    I agree with John that students need to experience the "real world" at a very graduated pace with the appropriate supports in our school. However, if schools are not providing those supports, I feel like they become educational casualties.

    Aaron, you are right, as a coach, I believe that we give our athletes skills of resiliency in many ways more effectively that we do in a classroom because we often are more formative in our approach to practice. This is why sport is such a great teacher.

    Glad to get great thoughts from great minds.

  5. Great thoughts Cale :) I recently read the book "Rework" and it talks about the exact thing. I wrote a post on one of the quotes here:

    We really have to prepare our students to be successful and failure does not always lead to that. Sometimes, but sometimes it forces us to quit. We need to do everything for our students to be successful the first time!

    Thanks for your post.

  6. This post seemed to come at a time where there has been a lot of talk about the importance of letting kids fail and all of us learning from our failures. In my opinion, there is a definite distinction between "failure" and "making mistakes". As you describe, a student who consistently falls short of success academically could be considered in a state of failure, which of course will cause the student to feel discouraged. When we stress the need for students to learn in an environment where risk-taking is encouraged, it is because we want children to be confident enough to think critically and problem solve and not be overwhelmed with the "right" or "wrong" methods/answers. Making mistakes is a natural part of the learning process, and I have learned from my mistakes many times over.

    I agree that we are the teachers, the ones who need to support students through the learning process every step of the way- through mistakes made and successes earned. I also agree that when a student fails, we should immediately ask ourselves what we can do differently to remedy the situation -what did we fail to do for that student to help him/her succeed? For at-risk students, we need to be even more vigilant about assessing the student's progress along the way toward the "target," as you mention. We need to build them up and up every day, help them be successful, show them that we make mistakes while learning, how we analyze the errors of our ways, and how we continue to strive toward the end goal.

    My two cents!

  7. BOOM! Absolutely love this post. Last year, I made a decision at our school that we would no longer socially promote nor retain students (unless extreme circumstances - not sure what that means yet). At our school, much like so many others, we promote all students and then provide support for those that needed. Instruction is differentiated to their level and extra supports are added for those that need to catch up. I had some knives being thrown at my back when I said no to what I believed was a lengthy list of primary students who should be "retained" as they "were not ready for the next grade". We all know what happens to kids that have been retained - they most likely drop out. We also know who the people are who get retained - late birthdays, boys, First Nation students, students with little home support and students of poverty. SO by failing these students, we are punishing them for something that is way beyond their control. I believe failing students is way too common in our system. Failure or making mistakes are part of learning - a student who has been retained has no opportunity to learn from their mistakes as they are now a year back from their peers.

    I understand where Chris is coming from as this is a perception of many (and not necessarily his) but I do have a beef with the comment, "we need to prepare students for the real world". What IS the real world? Are they in a "fake world" right now? I know that for many of my students, they experience more challenges and "failure" in their current world than I have faced in my entire life! I wrote a post on my beef with the "real world" here:

    In the so-called real world,I am given much more say in the risks I take and the chances to right my wrongs.

    We need to give our head a shake if we think that failure is a lesson to a child. I have never had a student that failed and then the next year "turned it around". We need to change the way we teach if a child is failing - love the title of your post!


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