A Failing Grade

Why Failure Should Be An Option

Contributed to NJSchoolJobs.com by Freelance writer Emma Matthews


Why Failure Should Be an Option

New Jersey has seen some encouraging results recently, with similar year on year results in Math and English, despite the tests being made tougher by the new Common Core standards. While this is really encouraging news, and teachers deserve a round of applause for their part in their students’ success, let’s turn our eyes away from tests and quizzes for a moment and remember why we got into teaching in the first place. Sure, test results are important; it is how we assess how well our students are learning and how we show parents and government that we are doing our jobs properly. It is important for the kids, too, to know how well they are doing compared to their peers, and to give them not only a sense of achievement, but a shrewd idea of what life is going to be like in the big, bad, competitive world they will be going into soon.

Who was your favorite teacher?

However, it has been said by Valore Books that, “one of the noblest paths one can take in life is to become an educator”. It is not noble because our students score better on tests than kids from another class, it is noble because we foster a love of learning about the subject we teach. If we have specialized in a particular topic, it is because we found something there that fascinated us and you can bet your bottom dollar it was because a particular teacher influenced us. Sadly, there is now so much pressure on teachers and students alike to do well, there is precious little time to encourage study of anything that is not on the curriculum or that will not yield measurable results. Organizations like The New Jersey Association for Lifelong Learning encourage adult learners to explore and learn, but children should also get opportunities to learn for the love of the subject, not just because there is a quiz coming up.

The ‘No Marks’ approach

In “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, the author tries an experiment on his college class and does not give them any marks for their assessments. The students initially hate this plan but gradually, most of them come around to enjoying the subject far more than they had previously. Of course, it could not last. Eventually, students had to be graded, but this does suggest that taking away the pressure of marks and SATs stops the lesson from being something that must be crammed and regurgitated at exam time and turns it back into something that is actually interesting. Why? Because failure has become an option that cannot hurt them.

Failing once is just another step closer to mastery

If babies learnt the way older children have to, they would never learn to walk, talk, or feed themselves because they would be too afraid to try something different. Fortunately for the human race, babies are not afraid of failure so they try to do things and fail, then try to do them again and fail yet again, but they keep on trying until they succeed. It is this persistence and dogged determinism we need to give back to the children in our classes, and the only thing holding them back is a misbegotten fear of failure. Encourage your students to try something completely different, something way out of their comfort zone, and get them to laugh at their own mistakes. Getting things wrong is how we learn to get things right next time, but somehow that lesson has got lost in the push for perfection. Ask your students to tell you something you do not know. They may be surprised to find out that you are not an oracle of all wisdom, but it is important to show them that ignorance is a good starting place for learning something new.

Teachers are role models

Silvio Laccetti, a retired professor from the Stevens Institute of Technology, says that “amazing things can happen” with everyone in the classroom on “an unfinished quest for knowledge and understanding”. He should know. After retirement, he decided to visit 100 past students and have dinner with them, catching up on old times and seeing just how far some of them had come. He was clearly a pretty impressive teacher, with many of his ex-students saying how they had told their own children about him. Maybe we cannot all be that inspiring, or be contenders for the New Jersey Teacher of the Year award, but we can teach our students a few things that will keep them learning for life, and that is a gift no one can take away from them.