Saturday, February 18, 2012

We no longer value failure in learning

Today's educational system is being pushed towards a mythical state of perfection, where all students (theoretically) achieve at the same high level at the same time. There's no room for failure in a high-stakes testing environment. It's no longer important to encourage discovery, failure, and perseverance in life's quest for success. It's now only important to be able to regurgitate what one has learned on a winner-take-all multiple choice test that's disguised as the only gateway to college and career. If you don't make it, you're a failure (and so are your teachers and your schools).

Thankfully, there were those in the past who came up through a more saner approach to education and learned that failing is not the end, nor is it the door to terminal disgrace. It's merely formative feedback that when combined with a touch of determination will eventually lead to success. No idiotic multiple choice test can predict that outcome.

Here's a few notable failures, some of whom never even completed a formal education yet ultimately achieved measurable success. For more examples, visit They Did Not Give Up:

As a young man, Abraham Lincoln went to war a captain and returned a private. Afterwards, he was a failure as a businessman. As a lawyer in Springfield, he was too impractical and temperamental to be a success. He turned to politics and was defeated in his first try for the legislature, again defeated in his first attempt to be nominated for congress, defeated in his application to be commissioner of the General Land Office, defeated in the senatorial election of 1854, defeated in his efforts for the vice-presidency in 1856, and defeated in the senatorial election of 1858. At about that time, he wrote in a letter to a friend, "I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth."

Thomas Edison's teachers said he was "too stupid to learn anything." He was fired from his first two jobs for being "non-productive." As an inventor, Edison made 1,000 unsuccessful attempts at inventing the light bulb. When a reporter asked, "How did it feel to fail 1,000 times?" Edison replied, "I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps."

Can you imagine earning the equivalent of a 1/10 of one-percent on a high stages test but ultimately succeeding beyond anyone's wildest dreams? Not in today's ridiculous NCLB crusade.

Albert Einstein did not speak until he was 4-years-old and did not read until he was 7. His parents thought he was "sub-normal," and one of his teachers described him as "mentally slow, unsociable, and adrift forever in foolish dreams." He was expelled from school and was refused admittance to the Zurich Polytechnic School. He did eventually learn to speak and read. Even to do a little math.

Henry Ford failed and went broke five times before he succeeded. 

"Failure provides the opportunity to begin again, more intelligently." ~ Henry Ford

Rocket scientist Robert Goddard found his ideas bitterly rejected by his scientific peers on the grounds that rocket propulsion would not work in the rarefied atmosphere of outer space.

"I never learned a thing from a tournament I won." 
~ Bobby Jones

When Julie Andrews took her first screen test for MGM studios, the final determination was that "She's not photogenic enough for film."

Enrico Caruso's music teacher said he had no voice at all and could not sing. His parents wanted him to become an engineer.

"Little minds are tamed and subdued by misfortune; 
but great minds rise above them."
~ Washington Irving

My personal favorite:

There is a professor at MIT who offers a course on failure. He does that, he says, because failure is a far more common experience than success. An interviewer once asked him if anybody ever failed the course on failure. He thought a moment and replied, "No, but there were two Incompletes."

"Every great cause is born from repeated failures and from imperfect achievements." 
~ Maria Montessori

"When the Columbia space shuttle broke apart above Texas in February 2003, no one knew that it could one day result in success. NASA astronaut Dr. Charles Camarda, however, believes the tragedy has provided both current and future engineers with a motto to live by - where there is failure, there is knowledge and understanding that doesn't come with success."

Fear is often the only thing that stands in the way of moving from failure to success. And fear is spawned by high-stakes testing and other narrow measures of achievement that have little to do with instilling courage to fail and the willingness to learn from failure and persevere. When the only purpose to testing is to rank students and schools, it serves as a roadblock rather than a map to eventual success. Instead of being seen as a way of sorting out what doesn't work from what does, a step that's necessary for failure to lead to success, it demoralizes the vast majority of students and teachers, and forces schools to spend more time focused on fixing what was failed rather than expanding on what succeeded.

Most of us probably don’t remember learning to walk, but surely our parents do, and they can vouch that we didn’t get it right the first time we tried. Did we give up and continue to crawl? No. We tried again until we got it right. But not only did we try again, we practiced walking so much we were eventually able to run. We weren’t born knowing everything, but we were born with the ability to learn and grow. ~ Katie Barbaro

Imagine a "top-to-bottom" list of parents whose child didn't demonstrate proficiency in walking by a specific year, month and day. Thankfully we're not there, yet, but what will happen to the future of humanity when we no longer value failure as the stepping stone to success?


  1. Our elementary school has adopted the following motto:
    "Failure is not an option. Excellence is the only option." It is posted all over the school. This is the exact opposite of "where there is failure, there is knowledge and understanding that doesn't come with success." I fear for what we are teaching these children.

  2. In this testing arena of life... I like to think there is a glimmer of hope. Your post reminds me that there is. How can we break the perpetual cycle the public school is drowning in?


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