While my whole focus in this ongoing blog topic is the positive force that failure can have, there is a bit of a movement in education that views failure as an overly negative influence. ‘Failure is not an option’ but not exactly in the Apollo 13 sense, but rather in sense of the abrogation of accountability and any effort is a good effort.
Charles J. Sykes, author of the book “Dumbing Down Our Kids: Why American Children Feel Good About Themselves But Can’t Read, Write, Or Add” cites this in his top ten list of why real life is different to school.
Rule No. 8: Your school may have done away with winners and losers. Life hasn’t. In some schools, they’ll give you as many times as you want to get the right answer. Failing grades have been abolished and class valedictorians scrapped, lest anyone’s feelings be hurt. Effort is as important as results. This, of course, bears not the slightest resemblance to anything in real life.
There are certainly lots of occasions times ‘failure’ could do more harm than good. Especially with regards to people being introduced to new things. Here fear and confusion could make failure a devastating impact. By extrapolation, very young children – where everything is new, confusing and intimidating – would definitely benefit from an environment were safe exploration is encouraged through safety nets and harnesses to minimise the daunting effects of even the smallest failure. Also, when the primary purpose of the activity is fun and entertainment, ‘failure’ doesn’t have much of a role to play.
But Sykes is condemning a environment where ‘failure’ is eradicated from a larger range of undertakings with people who are focused more on productive enterprise than entertainment, and more on developing and refining than introducing. I would concur that such eradication efforts be conducted cautiously and with balanced regard to the positive forces of turning adversity to advantage.
I do think that such an approach of embracing failure takes more work. Part of the danger of removing ‘failure’ from schools is just as much the removal of accountability from the educators as it is from the students. When the rules say ‘everyone passes’, then there is a lot less work to do to get everyone to pass. For a school to demonstrate ‘leadership’ in the classic metaphor of getting all the folks over the bridge, then the educators have to work to make sure that no child is left behind. Those who do initially fail need to get the support, tutoring and…education to set them up for success the next time around. But that investment is what pays the big dividends of individual growth.