Sunday, April 13, 2014

How to Teach Educational Failure - And Should We Teach It?



Does your school require you to turn in certain paperwork such as lesson plans or submit your grades by a certain time?  

What are the reasons why don't you turn in lesson plans, grades, or required paperwork on time?  Were you too busy with other responsibilities to complete your work and meet your deadline?  Were there things in both your professional and personal life that prevented you from fulfilling your obligations and doing what was expected of you?

What happens when you don't follow through with these expectations?  How does your administrator or supervisor react or respond?  Do you attempt to explain to your administrator why you need more time?  How flexible is your your administrator with your request?


What about if your students are not meeting the annual measurable objectives set by the state in which you live or the benchmarks for proficiency set by the district, charter, or site where you work?   What does your administrator do?  Do they fire you right on the spot because you're not performing at the level you should be?  Do they wait until the end of the year to let you know your contract will not be renewed or do they continue to keep you on staff, provide you with an instructional coach or mentor who can help you, or place you on a plan of improvement with specific goals you must attain?

How about when you don't agree with your administrator or supervisor and you refuse to do something out of civil disobedience?  What happens when you refuse to teach the class your administrator decides you need to teach the following year?  What happens when you refuse to follow directives and directions from your administrator or department chair?  What happens when your administrator or supervisor tells you not to do something and you go ahead and do it anyway?  What happens when you're not paying attention during a professional development or when you talk back to your principal?

Would it be acceptable, appropriate, and reasonable for you to be fired for all these things?  

These are all fireable offenses.  With the first scenario, you're failing to fulfill your obligations and responsibilities.  With the second, you're failing to meet or exceed standards of performance set for you.  With the third, you're failing to recognize and respect the directions given to you by your supervisors.

However, how many opportunities are you provided to correct or redeem your failures before your principal calls you into the office and says this.



Is this how failure is in the real world - final, penultimate, and unforgiving - or are we allowed and encouraged to learn from our errors and misjudgment and redeem ourselves so we may not repeat our mistakes and go on to achieve even greater success?

Most of the entries for the definition of failure in dictionaries focus more on the disappointing outcome when someone has tried to do something or describe how failure could be the result of an uncontrollable, unforeseen, unfortunate, or unpredictable circumstance or situation.
Famous "Failures"

This is how failure is viewed in the professional world.  Failure is synonymous with disappointment or lack of success.  It's also considered to be an opportunity.  Failure allows us to learn from our mistakes, reveals our strengths and areas of growth and improvement, inspires us and others, and may lead us to better opportunities.  

Failure also teaches us how to persevere by working both harder and smarter to attain goals.  If you fail, you regroup, attain support to protect yourself and whatever investments you may still have, or you simply walk away confidently and securely from the situation because it no longer has the appeal or interest it once did and set new goals and objectives.
Is Every Failure an Underlying Opportunity for Success?
Failure is also not final.  It can be experienced many, many, many times in a person's lifetime.  In fact, for many, failure is viewed as a beginning or an indication for a fresh new direction or start.

Failure is also forgiven and redeemable, especially when it is caused by an error in judgment and the person redeems themselves and proves they have learned from their mistakes.

Yoda said it best when he told Luke Skywalker, "Do or do not.  There is no try." In the real world, failure is when you don't.  Disappointment and lack of success is a lesson from which we can learn.


Isn't that what we should be teaching our students - to learn how to face failure, deal with adversity, and think critically and creatively how to maintain, obtain, or regain success?

Unfortunately, educational failure is more of a punishment than a lesson - and not one that can be easily forgiven or resolved.  Once you have an F in the gradebook, it's near impossible to make it go away.  God forbid if you have more than one F - especially if it's a zero.

However, what exactly does that F mean, how was it attained, and why was it earned?

Was the failing grade due to no success or no attempt?  Was it because the student turned in poor or unacceptable work, or did they turn in nothing?  Did the student fall far below the standard on an assessment, or make no attempt to complete the task?   Was the failure more about a disappointment with the work than a decision not to do the work?

When our students earn that F, does that F mean, "You've failed," and consider why or is it telling them, "You're fired," and move on?

What Is Educational Failure?
This is how educational rigor and educational failure are similar.  They're not simple concepts or problems that can be addressed or fixed.  Just as educational rigor consists of academic rigor (the difficulty and complexity of questions, problems, and tasks) and cognitive rigor (the level of knowledge, understanding, thinking, and awareness expected to be demonstrated and communicated to answer questions, address problems, and accomplish tasks), educational failure is categorized as academic failure, which is based upon quality, standard, and success of performance, and true failure, which is when there is no evidence of performance.

So how should we deal with both aspects of educational failure?  Should that failing grade remain averaged in students' grade point average or should they be given the opportunity to correct or make up for their failure?  Should we distinguish between those students who completed their work but earned a a failing grade and those students who failed because they did nothing?

I'm not suggesting we should prevent or protect our students from failing.  Failure is an experience that everyone will encounter at some point be it in their academic, personal, or personal life.  It is also a vital component of competition that drives a person to succeed, builds and strengthens character, and instills a strong work ethic.  We should allow our students to experience failure through disappointment, frustration, and lack of success not only so they learn how to deal with failure but also realize no one and nothing is ever or always perfect or successful.

I'm also not advocating for a no-fail policy that advocates for grading students with a 50% even if they do nothing in class just so the zeroes they would - and should - have earned won't have a detrimental effect on their GPA.  That's enabling and excusing failure.  Like I said, if a student did nothing, they deserve that zero.  It also does not address or support the larger issue, which is whether the student learns what they need to know, understand, be able to do and develops deeper knowledge, understanding, and awareness.

However, how can we turn failure into a positive rather than punitive experience that reflects failure in real life?

We can make student performance for grade similar to paying a bill.

When I taught 11th Grade English  at Horizon High School in Scottsdale, Arizona, the assignment that was worth the most points was the research paper, which was a herculean task that taught students deeply how to conduct research and investigations, document their sources, and communicate their learning in a persuasive essay.  The paper was assigned during second quarter and could make or break whether a student passed English for second semester.

It was also when my class roster would include seniors who did not pass English 6 (the name of the 11th Grade English course for second semester) and had to retake the class during their senior year in order to graduate.  Whenever I asked my students why they did not pass English 6, it was generally the same answer: "I didn't do the research paper."

When they asked me how they could pass my English 6 class so they could graduate, I would ask them, "Well, if you didn't pass English 6 because you didn't do the work, what do you think you need to do in here?" They clearly knew the answer - "Do the work."

However, there would always be that one senior who pushed the limits or didn't learn from their previous mistake and did not do the research paper.  That senior would always end up failing my class because the research paper was worth so much.  That was also the senior whose parents would come in complaining and calling for meeting with me, my department chair, and the administration because the graduation announcements had already been sent out and Aunt Molly was flying in from Idaho to see her favorite niece or nephew walk across the stage to get their diploma, and now that wasn't going to happen because they failed my class.  

I had five meetings like that my first year teaching 11th Grade English, and to be honest, I was fed up with having to defend myself for their child choosing not to do the research paper - or any of their work for that matter - and ending up failing English 6 again.

However, after the fifth meeting, I reflected upon what did I really care about?  Did I care about the grade or did I care about the student learning something?  If I failed them and didn't let them correct their mistakes, wouldn't they not only receive the F but also not learn the knowledge and skills they need for life after graduation?

I came up with the idea to let those seniors who repeated and again fail 11th Grade English to redeem themselves.  I suggested to my English Department Chair and principal that I will treat them as adults and shape this proposal I wanted to offer to them similar to what happens when you pay a bill.

Think about what happens when you don't pay a credit card bill on time.  You're penalized but you're not excused from what you owe.  In fact, you might have to pay a late fee or interest for your negligence or refusal to pay.  Generally, you're given between 30 to 90 days to pay in full until they call the creditors on you or shut down your service.

However, you're never excused from that payment.  You still owe that money.

That's when I came up with the idea to treat assignments and grading in my class like a bill.

In my classroom, the service I provided was my instruction and guidance on how to write a research paper.  Your payment owed to me for that service is the assignment or paper you have to complete.   The due date for that payment is the due date of the assignment.  If you turn the payment in on time, you'll receive the credit of a passing grade between A and D or higher than 60%.  

If you don't turn in that payment, you receive no credit.  However, you still owe me that payment.  The payment is your demonstration and communication of learning. If you prove that, you'll receive credit, but the penalty for late payment is not the full credit you would have earned.

This became not only my grading policy but also part of my educational philosophy.   It was what I offered to my students when I was a teacher, and it was what I suggested to my teachers when I was an administrator.  Initially, both parties balked.  

The students thought it was unfair that they would receive a 59.45% even if they turned in the work after the due date.  I would agree with them, but I also reminded them they had the opportunity to get full credit by turning the work in by the due date.  That was their choice.  They chose not to, so here's a second opportunity not only to earn some kind of credit but also learn the content and concept well enough to be prepared for the state summative assessment or the final given at the end of the semester.

The teachers complained not only that we were teaching kids they could "get away with doing nothing" or "being rewarded for being irresponsible".  We would engage in an Q and A with me asking them to explain what did they mean.  They would make statements how, "Kids need to learn responsibility," or how, "You can't make excuses for what you don't do," or even, "Life is about homework," and, "Kids have to realize life isn't about second chances," and,

In response to the second to last statement, first I'd give a hypothetical question about what they would think if I as their boss gave them an assignment that was due the very next day after this meeting in which they would be required to read and respond to a study on the detrimental effects of failing policies that don't allow forgiveness, to research and investigate the psychology and pedagogy behind student failure, the history of how failure has been handled in education, and solve a variety of routine and non-routine math word problems that required calculating what a failing grade can do to a student's entire GPA.  Then I would remind them this was all due to me as a report that can be presented orally, in writing, creatively, or with technology by tomorrow.

As for that final statement, I would ask, "Should I remember that when you or one of the staff members don't turn in your grades, lesson plans, or paperwork on time?  Should I consider that when I review your students' scores on the previous benchmark or when I look for growth and progress based upon the benchmarks given over the year?  Should I keep that in mind when I have a complaint brought to my office about something you did that could be considered cause for dismissal even though you apologize or promise it would never happen again?"

Those conversations never ended well nor did I intend them to transform their thinking the moment they left my office.  All I wanted was them to consider the implications of their thinking and actions, which is what the F our students earn should do.

We're required to teach.  They're expected to pass.  That's the bottom line.  How that happens depends not only on the effort of the student but also the willingness for us educators to reflect upon our own efforts to provide them with the education they not only deserve but should want and even be convinced they would want.

Life may not always be about second chances.  However, it is about learning and growing from our mistakes - and that's what educational failure should be.  If they fail for academic reasons, we need to figure out how to help them achieve and attain success.  If our students choose true failure by doing nothing, then we can give them that opportunity to learn from their mistakes.  If they don't, then it's their decision and responsibility.

- E.M.F.






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