Failure is how we learn

“Failure is how we learn.” These are words that, until this year, I was not willing to say out loud to students or parents.

   I wasn’t comfortable with telling students that they would indeed, at times in my class, fail - and that the failure would be spectacular and that it would hurt. I wasn’t comfortable with how students failing might reflect upon my practice as a teacher. I’d always been told I was an outstanding teacher - complete with hardware to prove it! - and in my mind, student failure equated to teacher failure as well. So I did what I could to make sure that kids Did. Not. Fail. I adjusted grades - or, as students like to say “curved grades” - I required tutoring, I gave extra credit. But I also wrung my hands, gnashed my teeth, and cursed an awful awful lot when none of these things improved student learning.  

   Then in 2009, legislation was passed in my state regarding allowing students to redo failing work for mastery. By law, students are allowed “reasonable opportunity” to redo any assignment to raise their grade in order to demonstrate mastery - a grade of 70, as defined by the State of Texas.

   Allowing students to redo failing work for mastery sounds like a great idea - in theory. If you aren't the teacher who has to regrade the work, recreate assessments, and redesign instruction, all while differentiating learning experiences for each of the 155 students on your roster, it's a great idea ...

   Just like every other educational reform devised by non-practitioners who have no concept of what it truly is to teach students, beyond what they know from being experts on education because they went to school once.  

   I firmly believe that laws like this actually do more to hurt students than they do to help them. I believe that laws like this disable students more than they enable them. ”But why?” you might ask.  

   When we constantly cushion the intellectual blows students sometimes suffer as a result of an increase in academic rigor, what are we really teaching them?  

   We are teaching them that there will always be a safety net. Real life teaches us that this is not always the case and that, when the safety net is absent, we must learn quickly to think fast on our feet so that we at least stand a chance to land on them.  

   We are enabling them to be intellectually dependent on us, robbing them of the capacity to think for themselves.

   We are stealing their ability to develop into problem solvers and critical thinkers who can think quickly and adeptly to figure out which step to take next to get to their goal.  

   If we never failed at anything, would we really ever learn how to do anything at all? Would we ever learn what true success looked and felt like?

   The worst part of this law is that the redone work is tied to a grade. Furthermore, the law does not define what the opportunity to redo should look like - I suppose this is the State of Texas' way of giving districts back the local control they once had. (But that is another soapbox for another day.) Without clearly defined boundaries for what constitutes being able to redo work, there is no guarantee that students actually relearn the content they failed to master the first time.

   When students know they have the chance to redo work without a real opportunity to relearn, the redone work is seen as a way to improve the grade rather than to master content.

   It also begs the question: How do we set kids up for learning in such a way that failure is not seen as a negative thing but rather a learning experience? And how do we get parents to understand that it is OK for their kids to fail every once in a while, that they aren’t perfect and should not expect to be?

   It is incumbent upon the teacher as instructional designer to create a learning environment in which failure is seen as a necessary accessory to the learning process. Teachers also need to encourage and build resilience in students during the learning process. Too often students give up when they don't get the answer they are looking for or don't complete some task correctly the first time. Teachers should share their own experiences with failure so that students see that failure does not define an individual: how that individual reacts to failure does.

   It is also important for teachers to ask students these questions: If we never failed at anything, would we really ever learn how to do anything at all? Would we ever learn what true success looked and felt like?  

Lee Ferguson is a veteran biology educator hailing from the state of Texas, where she teaches AP Biology at the state's largest high school, Allen High School.  A graduate of both Southwestern University and the University of Texas at Dallas, Lee also serves as a science education consultant for Metroplex area teachers and is an instructor for the Rice EdX AP Biology prep course. When she's not teaching, you can find her out and about with her trusty Nikon or volunteering with her Rotary Club.