Teaching to Fail

From David Lourie, Head of School.

In one of the many conversations that I have had with teachers over these past two weeks of preparation for the school year, the topic of failure as a powerful teaching tool came up. It seems that over the past few years, from op-ed pages to educational periodicals, I have encountered more literature about how the adults in our children’s lives have an obligation to “teach” them that to fail is a necessary step in the lifelong learning process. Far too often, the consensus seems to be, parents and teachers alike take pains to ensure that failure is not a part of our children’s schooling and lives, and if it does occur, to mitigate its effects rather than embrace them. With so much allegedly at stake in the college admission game of roulette, I cannot blame anyone for fretting about the costs associated with, say, a low grade in an Upper School course that could possibly impact a college admission decision. I would never say that such low grades would not have a potentially deleterious effect, with some colleges now “boasting” single-digit acceptance rates. By accepting fewer and fewer students and making it harder and harder to get in, colleges are sending the none-too-subtle message to their future applicants (and those applicants’ teachers and parents) that they must be perfect in all respects to be, at the very least, acceptable. A blemish-free transcript appears to be the minimum standard for consideration, and often times this is not even enough.

So are colleges looking for perfection? While the numbers might indicate that this is the case, I sincerely hope it is not, for university campuses teeming with perfect people are not a preparation for any world with which I am familiar. That is why this recent article, “Teaching to Fail,” caught my attention. From Inside Higher Ed (www.insidehighered.com), it tells of a professor who includes failure as a portion of his overall course grade. It reads, “5 percent of their final grade is based on their ‘quality of failure.'” To this end, he has “asked [his] students to intentionally fail.” He offers his rationale as follows:

Individuals need to embrace the realization that taking risks and failing are often
the essential moves necessary to bring clarity,  understanding, and innovation.
By making a mistake, we are led to the pivotal question: “Why was that wrong?” By answering this question, we are intentionally placing ourselves in a position to
develop a new insight and to eventually succeed. But how do we foster such a
critical habit of mind in our students — students who are hardwired to avoid failure
at all costs?

While I agree wholeheartedly with his thinking, I hope that he and his colleagues recognize and accept their own responsibility for the state of college students who are “hardwired to avoid failure at all costs.” This professor is lamenting his students’ aversion to failure, yet these same professors demand from their administration more qualified (read: more perfect) students with each admitted class. Through their admission practices, they do not appear to tolerate any failure at the high school level, yet in this article lament its absence in their own lecture halls. So to fill this gap, they are forced to create failure assignments (which strikes me as the epitome of inauthentic learning). This divide between what professors want and what prep schools are allowed to provide via admission offices must be addressed through a candid K-16 conversation, one that must be had before admission rates fall even farther and demand even more perfection from an already pressured generation. While we wait for this conversation, I hope that this professor and his like-minded colleagues will advocate for more holistic admission policies and practices, ones that reward instead of punish high school students for taking risks and encountering failure for the sake of authentic learning and growing. If his university and others admit more imperfect students, I promise him that he will no longer have to assign his students an “industrial stress test” to prove their mettle. They will come to him already prepared, in more ways than one.

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