Over the last year, I’ve seen a bunch of stuff about assigning zeroes, going easy on students, whether failure is good / bad / etc. Today a job interview reminded me of this again so I thought I’d put my thoughts out there finally.
My job as a teacher is to help students achieve a learning goal. That goal isn’t chosen by me, but even if it was, I’d want it to be a goal worth reaching. What’s more, I’d want it to be a challenge – something that’s possible but not easy to attain. The reason? Challenges are more fun. They’re more likely to keep you “in the zone” while learning, and they’re more likely to build up your confidence in your abilities.
Now, there have been some great essays / blog posts / etc about how “failure isn’t an option” for their students because they want their students held accountable from start to finish without giving them the “out” of a zero or a failed chapter. And I respect this and agree. There have been other people saying that if you’re unwilling to fail a student, you’re not doing your job, etc. I also respect this and agree – because these are not talking about the same thing. So let’s just admit now that the title phrase I used here is horrible and can mean too many things.
What we believe about failure sums up a LOT of what we believe about teaching, learning, and probably life. So here’s how I glue this all together:
Failure is temporary
In 99.9% of life’s stuff-that-happens, failure does not kill anyone and can be recovered from. Learning to recover from failure or setbacks is called resiliency, and it’s important. Really important. Because sometimes life sucks.
When I’ve failed courses before (it only happened a couple of times, honest), I was set back, and it was lousy. But then I retook those courses next year and fixed the problem. My degree lasted a bit longer and cost me a bit more money than I’d have liked, but in the end I learned what I needed to learn.
When I’ve failed at jobs before (again, only a couple of times), I was also set back and it was just as lousy. But I moved on, I found other jobs, and in some cases learned more about myself and about what I’m best suited to do professionally. It didn’t last forever.
(The small slice of humanity that end up being engineers in life-critical situations? They still have failures – that’s why there’s QA testing, duh. Heart surgeons I guess just make all their mistakes on cadavers in med school, but eww, I don’t want to visualize that.)
Failure is necessary for challenge
Or at least, the possibility of failure is necessary. Think about it – if you knew it was impossible to fail at something, how could that possibly be considered a challenge? Would it be as satisfying when you succeed?
This is something game designers know intimately well, although their approach to it varies wildly. Some create insanely difficult games but keep the challenges as short, repeatable and rewarding as possible, or build up a relaxing atmosphere to keep players feeling welcome. On the other end of the spectrum, some create games with simplified challenges but keep people engaged through narrative flow. This can backfire though, as was seen in the mild internet backlash when a gamer posted a video of someone “completing” the first level of a new Call of Duty game without actually firing a shot (essentially, doing nothing but running along with the scripted events).
I try to make my math classes in the past as accessible as possible. By “accessible” I basically mean, “I want it to be as easy as possible for you to succeed at this challenging goal.” That might make the class “easier” in that I’m willing to remove unnecessary stumbling blocks out of the way – like poorly-worded word problems, for example – but that doesn’t mean I’m lowering the target. If the goal is “climb that mountain”, I’m not going to pretend that climbing this small hill is the same thing. (But I might point out that the west side is a lot less cliff-insanity than the one you’re trying.)*
So, yes, failure must be possible, otherwise what kind of a challenge would this be?
Failing is not a great choice to make, but it’s a choice
Remember the examples up there in the “failure is temporary” section? Yes, I recovered and learned from them, but they were still lousy and often a sign that I’d made some bad choices. Likewise, I don’t think I need to worry about glorifying failure to students. On the other hand, there have been times where failing something was clearly a choice made by the student, whether consciously or as a result of inaction. In some way, insisting that failure is “not an option” risks taking what control students have in their learning away from them. But somehow you’ve got to mix this with a stubborn desire for students to not give up and realize their capabilities … man this is hurting my brain just thinking about it.
So, okay, sometimes failure happens. Yes, it’s an option, although almost never a great one. But failures are temporary, so I’ll let a kid upgrade their mark with a requiz whenever I can. And also since failures are temporary, I’ll assign an F to a course grade at the end if the kid just hasn’t gotten there, because they’ll recover. Acting like it’s impossible to recover from failure is a scary worldview to pass on.
* P.S. I have never climbed a mountain in my life and have no clue, it just sounded good.