I wanted to take a few minutes to ruminate more deeply on something I said in passing in a comment thread a few weeks back. Here’s what I said:
When a student has not been allowed to fail, they will learn that failure isn’t something that can happen. When a college professor gives them an F, the result is confusion.
Unfortunately, failure *is* something that can happen, regardless of the attitude one takes towards it in primary and secondary school. It happens with devastating results, sometimes. Now, school is supposed to be a place where you can fail without devastating consequences, where you can learn from your failures and become better at things, but failure in school is often seen these days as a devastating consequence itself. (e.g., YOU RUINED MY CHANCE TO GET INTO HARVARD!)
That’s a problem. Certification should be the secondary mission of schools, not the primary mission.
There are really three different points here.
First, there’s an assertion that failure is always a possibility. That’s probably true: one can avoid failure only by never attempting anything not guaranteed success, which is itself a sort of failure… at life. We’ll come back to this in a moment.
Second, there’s an assertion that school should be a place where failure is constructive. That’s a much dicier proposition. We all know the old saying: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” If you don’t know it, you should learn it, because it’s a good saying. But there’s another saying, too: “Insanity is trying the same thing over and over again expecting different results.” If you consider both of these sayings together, the resulting imperative seems to be something like “If at first you don’t succeed, keep altering your approach until you do.” And that’s really great advice.
Of course, there are times when you don’t want to have to try again. Operation Overlord comes to mind this time of year. No one wants to fail when they’re invading Europe; it’s too expensive, too much is on the line. Failure isn’t an option in such situations; if Eisenhower was pushed back into the sea and tens of thousands of soldiers died for naught, well, it would take great presence of mind to say, “Let’s try this again, but put the seventh division over here this time.” No, you drill and practice as best you can before the big invasion, and try to work out the possibilities of failure in a low-consequence environment.
Whether success is a must or merely a goal depends on the consequences. That last-second three-point shot isn’t a laboratory for experiment because the game rides on it; if you’re a professional NBA player, you’ve already had all the consequence-free practice money can buy. Now’s the time to succeed.
School, I’d like to argue, needs to be a place for consequence-free practice. My favourite analogy for academic education is martial arts; it’s not actually an analogy, because I think they’re the same thing. Schools essentially are (or, I argue, should be) kung-fu academies for the mind. When you walk into a martial arts dojo, you practice. That’s not to say you don’t get hurt: people get hurt all the time in practice. That’s how you can tell that the practice is really good practice: you’ve got all sorts of bumps and bruises. But they aren’t the sorts of bumps and bruises you get when you’re on the ground in an alley doing your level best to drive your elbow through someone’s temple before they choke you to death.
So I’m not saying school should be completely consequence-free — but the stakes need to be lower than they are in the environment for which one is training.
And oddly, they aren’t. They’re higher. Yes, it’s true that how you do in college, say, matters more than how you do in high school. But that’s only half the story, because where you do how you do in college depends on how you did in high school. If you get a 3.9 at Yale, then yes, that makes up for your 2.1 in High School. But good luck getting in to Yale. And that’s because high school (and, let us be frank, to a great extent college) is a certification system, which brings me to my third point.
High schools have three jobs, really. First, they need to keep the kids off the streets, corralled, and out from underfoot. I personally find this role of the high school to be both demeaning to the teenagers, counterproductive to actual learning, and immoral.
Second, High Schools need to instruct their students in a certain body of knowledge. Now, this body of knowledge is schizoid in the extreme, and it’s created substantially by committee, so it’s not what anyone would call a “coherent” body of knowledge. But there needs to be some teaching going on, some imparting of skills, some training for the rest of one’s life. This is the function I consider absolutely primary.
Finally, High Schools give diplomas: they certify a certain level of competence. Just how much competence they certify and how worthwhile their certifications are will vary from school to school and is the subject of many an essay, op-ed, and book. But that’s the third job, and it’s the certification that is driving all the consequences that I was talking about above. I want to argue that the certification mission is substantially interfering with the education mission, precisely because it is causing the practice itself to be less practice and more real-performance. That “F” on your English essay should be a signal to try again, to rewrite it with a new technique, a new approach. Instead, it’s 20% of your grade, which is 4% of your final GPA. In other words, that ONE essay that you just wrote is .8% of your final GPA in high school.
Bruises acquired in a martial arts dojo during practice heal, and the students emerge stronger, wiser, and more skilled. The bruises stay in the dojo, and in the mind of the student. We need to figure out a way to keep students’ failures inside the school, to give them more opportunity to practice — just practice. How many ungraded assignments that get substantial feedback have any of you given in the last few weeks? In my entire high school career, the only ungraded practice I had was in French. Everything else was graded, it went on the record, it became part of my certification.
That’s super-useful if you’re the person depending on the certification, and you just want people with natural talent who pick things up right away. But it’s horrible for the student who might need a little practice.
Of course, you might question (as many of my students do when we discuss these things) whether students would actually do any ungraded practice assignments. That argument — that grades are primarily about motivation — seems to me at once to be a good one and to prove my point. The reasons that grades motivate is because they matter. If they didn’t matter, they wouldn’t motivate. But the fact that grades matter (and that everything is graded) is precisely why I think there’s a problem.
I’ve gone on long enough for a blog post. Too long, probably. But I wanted to try to get my head around some of these ideas and I think it’s helped.