Tuesday, May 15, 2012

If You Could Not Fail?

The month of 'AprilMayJune' is a challenging time for schools around the country.  It is the time of year when plans are being made for September, and there are numerous difficult decisions that need to be made to prepare the school for the fall.  As I am sure it is for everyone, the preliminary budgets come in to us that never seem to be enough, the staffing is so tight that it seems nearly impossible to make it work, there are courses that are over-subscribed and others under-subscribed leading to difficult decisions about which classes to run.  This time of year can be a stressful time for everyone, and for me, it has been no exception.

Feeling a bit torched after these past few weeks, I thought that I would shelve the professional reading for a night and let a mindless movie wash over me as I sunk into my couch with a bathtub-sized bowl of popcorn.  The movie of choice was called New Year's Eve, and it absolutely met the minimal expectations that I had for it.  However, in one particular scene, one actor was eulogizing his father.  Within this eulogy, he quoted his father, and the quote stuck with me:

"What would you do in your life if you knew that you could not fail?"


Over the last several months, I have read countless blogs about the 'importance' of failure.  How failure teaches us things.  How failure is a part of life.  How it is important in schools for us to 'let students experience failure' so long as we are there as the safety net to help them lick their wounds as they bounce off of the proverbial rock bottom.

I know that I could be in the minority, but I just don't buy it.  To this end, I have yet to find compelling evidence that failure is teaching kids what we want them to learn.  I have heard plenty of anecdotal reports of the importance of failing, but the solid evidence behind the 'just dust yourself off and get back up' school of thought has never come across my desk.  We talk of failure as though it is simply collateral damage, a part of life.  But for many of our struggling learners, the damaging effects of failure are lasting and real. Maybe the research proving me wrong will surface, but...

...but forget the evidence.  In a time that we are asking students to be critical thinkers, to be creative dreamers, and to solve problems that do not yet exist, which phrase would you rather your son or daughter hear from their teacher or principal?

"In your life, it is important that you experience failure.  I know this to be true.  Don't worry, you will be stronger for it."


"What would you do in your life if you knew that you could not fail?"

Putting this into context,  how many times do we have to coax students (or our own children.....) to even remotely contemplate trying something new?  How many times as adults do we have to force ourselves to step out of our comfort zone?  To this end,  I would venture to guess that if the level of encouragement proffered to us was commensurate with the 'importance of experiencing failure'  comment, we likely would retreat to our corners and not bother trying anything new at all.

We have to be careful when we say that it is important to 'experience failure'.  How much of this failure is the right amount?  What happens when a student decides that they have experienced 'enough' failure, and decide to quit.  What if they have experienced so much failure that we lose them altogether?  Now what?  Is that the right amount?

Call me Polyanna, but I want students to try the things they would not normally try.  To do things that they would normally not think that they could do.  And the only way to get them to do those things is to build the belief that they CAN do it, to help them scaffold the task so they have the appropriate level of challenge, and to build their resiliency skills so when they are confronted with the inevitable challenges that will come they choose to persevere.   In short, I want them to approach their courses at school as though they cannot fail as opposed to thinking they might fail and that failure is good for them.

At an Assessment Conference I attended several years ago, I heard Rick Stiggins say something that has stuck with me to this day:

"It's not important whether children hit the target today.  It's whether they come back to try again tomorrow".

By believing students will be successful, guiding them closer to the target, and having them approach their education as if they cannot fail, we will make the creative problem solvers that will come back and try again tomorrow.

That is the school that I want.