Failure: The New Recipe for Success?

failI think we can all agree that failure is a pretty bad educational outcome. Doesn’t get much worse really. Of course, touting student failure as the new recipe for success is pretty trendy right now (seemingly riding the coat-tails of the “grit” movement) and seems to be everywhere promoted via pithy quotes from Thomas Eddison and Samuel Beckett. There’s no shortage of serious pundits either who talk about the need to let students fail. And of course they have a point. Everyone needs to learn the life lesson that we don’t always get things right on the first try; sometimes you have to keep trying before you get it right.

But “Failure” is one of those blunt words that really pack a wallop, hitting the ears hard and causing the heart to skip a beat when it’s leveled at you. Maybe that’s why it’s getting so much mileage lately. But let’s be honest, “failure” has a wide array of applications, and the pundits can’t seriously mean the kind of heart-stopping failure that so conveniently grabs the attention of readers. Are we talking here about failing a little quiz? Having trouble conducting a lab experiment? Are we talking about failing the course? Or failing out of high school? That would be a really great life lesson right? Failing out of high school?

From what I can tell, what these folks really mean is that we educators shouldn’t shy away from situations in which students have the opportunity to develop fortitude by taking their lumps, by experiencing setbacks and difficulties that they can eventually, (and here’s the important part…) ultimately overcome. It’s not always clear that the pundits (and their followers) do not really mean failure with all its hollow, ringing finality. Perhaps this is why parents cringe when they hear the word bandied about so carelessly.

What is the value of failure? Setbacks and difficulties that are not final and irredeemable (and let’s face it, few academic failures need be so) can in fact provide valuable lessons. They not only illustrate that which is not successful, but, in theory at least, they can help desensitize kids to the sting of falling short and provide real, meaningful evidence that such challenges are surmountable. This is the point John Merrow makes in recounting the unlikely story of WD-40, so called because it took the company that many (40) tries to produce a successful product. It wouldn’t make such a great story though if the ending were different, if after WD-6 flopped, the unforgiving financial realities of the 1960s lubricants market forced the company to dissolve never to be heard from again.

What we have here in the “failure discussion” is the inverse of the old 20/20 hindsight principle. Not only is it much easier to see events and relations clearly once they have passed, it’s also much easier to forget about those obscure events that never panned out. Modern maps don’t mark the hundreds of medieval European principalities that never developed into modern nation states nor do we hear fun stories about the thousands of hopeful entrepreneurs who never managed to create an iconic and illustratively numbered spray lubricant.

So when we bandy about the word failure we should remember to qualify it. What we’re really talking about are short-term failures, obstacles along the eventual road to success, and yes these obstacles can, in the right context, with the right people spinning it the right way, to the right kid, come laden with valuable lessons about resilience. But like so much in education, judging where to draw the line between allowing a student to fail just hard enough that valuable lessons will be learned but not so hard that it will result in defeatism or ruin chances for admission to a good college is more art than science, and experience shows that teachers and parents will often not agree on where that line should be drawn. Like most human beings parents want to be happy. They don’t want to worry that their child has done poorly or now has diminished chances of attending the “right” college. Failing (and near-failing) grades impinge on that sense of well-being. Teachers on the other hand may be more inclined to let a student take the natural consequences of not preparing adequately, not putting forth effort, not seeking help, not submitting homework on time, and so forth, especially when they know that abundant  chances were offered and declined.

So where do we find the balance? And what additional consideration should we give in the case of students described as having learning (dis)abilities who have likely already taken years of educational lumps and whose resilience to negative feedback may be woefully compromised? If a student is properly placed and appropriately challenged and adequate support has been offered, then very likely unsatisfactory performance comes down to apathy, anxiety, or both. In any case the teacher must take into account integrity and consistency. If you’re going to give grades at all they should bear some meaning, and if you laid out a set of performance criteria for students, it benefits no one in the long run to jettison those criteria to avoid some unpleasant realities. In the end, the failing student must take the grade, along with as clear and compassionate a message as possible about what went wrong and how it can be fixed next time. Failure is not the positive learning experience hyperbolic pundits have spun it to be, but for many it is a very real contingency that can emerge during their education and should be dealt with by adults in the most constructive way possible for the student. After all, being strung along with passing grades and unearned plaudits is far worse than facing the music while it’s still relatively safe to face.

The Individual and the Classroom


When thinking about the philosophy of teaching, there was one particular aspect of the text that struck me throughout the second half of On Liberty by John Stuart Mill, which continually resonates for me in the context of my own life: the need for balance while and during the act of expressing one’s individuality. Mill presents his notion of balance through the usage of detailed examples and within the context of living in a just society, but I am specifically interested in the notion of individuality as “a cultivation of self” and the ways in which the individual can achieve growth and progress within a democratic society that intrinsically embraces assimilation and conformation. I’m also curious about his ideas concerning the opinion of the majority and how he asserts that the voice of the majority is not necessarily useful for promoting individual freedoms, which of course (because I’ve written about it so often in these blog posts) leads me consider those implications on schooling.

Mill has stated, “To be held to rigid rules of justice for the sake of others, develops the feelings and capacities which have the good of others as their object. But to be restrained in things not affecting their good, by their mere displeasure, develops nothing valuable, except such force of character as may unfold itself in resisting the restraint.” This quote represents Mill’s emphasis on the importance of choice, but hearkens to the idea of balance as only individuals who are using all of their facilities are able to make choices and are thus maintaining some semblance of intellectual cohesion.

I’m not quite sure if I understand whether or not Mill details how to get to a point where you are able to use all of your facilities; I see that he believes that children ought to be educated in an academy-like setting and that adults ought to exercise their freedom of choice, but are there precise ways in which to implement this? Perhaps I am asking this question because I am constantly looking for methods myself to employ in order to aid my own students in becoming better self-contained agents of change and progress.

In bringing this back to the idea of balance, one technique I have been teaching to my students lately is how to practice both methodological believing and methodological doubt. Peter Elbow’s two conceptual tools of critical thought seem to address Mill’s notion of individuality because I believe it supports individuals in finding originality and nuance of thought by emphasizing virtues and flaws within ideas.

We have taken this a step further by utilizing it in the context of certain significant historical pieces (Civil Disobedience, Crito) and I am thinking so much about On Liberty as I teach this thematic unit, especially when considering the idea of societal control and conformity. This is perhaps demonstrated most notably when Mill writes on page 60 that “originality is a valuable element in human affairs.” I agree with this sentiment wholeheartedly, but when practicing methodological doubt I must ask when it is not a valuable element; in other words, are there times when originality is not a virtue to strive for? I suppose in this sense I circle back to the notion of balance, and the fact that there must be equality between the act of conformation and originality, though I am still not quite sure how to achieve this or what exactly this middle ground would look like. Would it be the ultimate citizen? Who would be a contemporary example of this?

I suppose I am left thinking about the relationship between man and society, which sounds like a massive undertaking when I reread this sentence, but is frankly just surrounding ideas inspired by Plato of what an individual owes their society, and vice versa. Mill would suggest that since people receive the protection/comforts of a society that they would owe something in return. I am still working that out for myself and generally agree (I do still pay my taxes, after all), but very much like the idea of nonconformity and wonder how much I subject my own personal bias on to my students, but then again, I would think it may actually be impossible not to.

In his final chapter of On Liberty, Mill writes, “It is indispensable, therefore, that the means should exist, independently of the government, of forming such ability, and furnishing it with the opportunities and experience necessary for a correct judgment of great practical affairs.” I suppose, then, that the responsibility to find the means referred to by Mill rests upon a balance between the individual and the educator, who is theoretically responsible for providing some methods of exploring opportunities and experiences which would ideally culminate in a critical examination of the society.

The Problem-Solving Humanities Classroom?

Photo by Amber Elliot

Photo by Amber Elliot

Math is an abstract subject which, to the novice especially, can easily become divorced from its real-world applications, devolving into a mechanical, step-by-step following of procedures. That’s one reason the problem-solving approach as outlined by the Lesson Study Alliance is so attractive. The concept is simple: present students with a “real world” problem they can relate to (one example, from a Japanese school, involved calculating the crowdedness of rabbit cages of various sizes and shapes), ask them to come up with ways to solve it, solicit ideas, compare and discuss the ideas. Students then write down what they learned. It is beautiful in its simplicity. It is student-centered. It is hands-on. It is engaging. It encourages thinking for oneself. It is pretty near everything a teacher might want, but can it work in a humanities classroom?

Of course to implement this approach effectively a teacher really has to know her students. She has to work out the lesson in a meticulous way so that what starts as a natural and spontaneous flow can become a subtly orchestrated, directed lesson, and importantly for this discussion one with a preconceived point. The teacher should start out with a key concept that she’d like the kids to discover. She should anticipate some of the possible ideas, and she should be able to unobtrusively guide the students toward their own (seemingly natural) discovery of the key concept.

problem solving classroom

– McDougal, “Teaching Mathematics through Problem Solving”


…maybe new humanities too?

But, can this approach be applied to other subject areas in which problems have more open-ended solutions, or no clear solution at all? Is it possible to lead students to discoveries of important concepts in history or literature in the same way without spoon-feeding them one, prescribed interpretation? Can the problem-solving approach be used effectively to teach students to think independently? At first glance, the answer appears to be “no.” The approach seems to depend somewhat on there being a clear, undisputed answer. In the case of the rabbit cages, there were some cages more crowded than others and only one that was least crowded, and there really was one best method for determining these things. It’s hard to imagine a history class starting with a problem like, “In retrospect, should the U.S.  have dropped atomic bombs on Japan?” and arriving at anything like a clear-cut answer by using any single “best” method.

The idea of the problem-solving classroom is so attractive though, that it’s certainly worth delving a little deeper to see if it can be applied to the humanities whilst avoiding the pitfall of simplistic spoon-feeding or inadvertent indoctrination. We have to start by deciding what kind of outcomes we desire from a successful humanities lesson. Among the old favorites in history classes we have, “Students will explain cause and effect relationships.”; “Students will draw logical conclusions,” or “make accurate predictions.” Can we now formulate problems that will lead students to methodically hone these skills? Of course we can! But if we want students to solve problems of a historical nature we need to set a bit of time aside to present the historical event. It may also prove helpful to provide some foreshadowing of things to come. Then, set up the problem:

“In March of 1770 a rowdy group of sailors and workers taunted and harassed British soldiers in Boston. The soldiers were there to support appointed officials who were trying to enforce the unpopular laws we learned about already. The soldiers fired into the crowd. Five civilians died, and 6 others were wounded. This was 5 years before the outbreak of the Revolution. How do you think this event was described in the American press, in the British? Write a brief description of the event from one of these perspectives. Explain what led to it and what effect it might’ve had.”

Solicit answers. Guide the discussion by affirming logical conclusions and accurate predictions. Ask students to explain how they arrived at their conclusions. In the end, ask them to jot down in their journals what they learned from describing the incident. Hopefully, they learned something about the power of perspective as they practiced explaining cause and effect relationships and drawing logical conclusions. Along with practicing these skills, they added one more piece to the complex puzzle of understanding the past. A problem solving approach needn’t be limited to problems with single, clear solutions nor confined to the math department. With a bit of planning and clear-headed thinking about goals and objectives, the humanities teacher can harness the engaging and effective power of the problem-solving classroom


Engaging Reluctant Learners

Photo by Shayla Beley

In secondary education, many of us engage with “The Problem,” as we call it, on a daily basis. “The Problem” happens to be one that many educators have most likely considered as they have worked to implement their curricular ideas on students who seem less than engaged; that is, how do we, as teachers, aid students in learning for the sake of learning? Is the act of teaching students to practice acts of intrinsic autonomy possible? Are they developmentally ready to delve into conceptual frameworks that presuppose a familiarity with multiple perspectives? It is a conundrum, to be sure, made even more complicated when considering students who have diagnosed neurological disorders that cause them to learn differently from the so-called average student.

It is important to note that this post is very much influenced by a number of philosophers: Gareth Mathews, Plato, John Stuart Mill, and John Dewey, who are just a small handful of individuals that have posed ideas relevant to the blog, I also want to note that I believe that literature, if viewed as an exploration of ideas relevant to the human condition, can engage students who have often experienced failure in discipline-related classes in the act of intrinsic autonomy.

Perhaps the foremost researcher in childhood development is Jean Piaget, who has suggested within his work, as demonstrated through his theory of cognitive development, that kids cannot be engaged in higher-level thinking until adolescence, which occurs around age twelve. However, Gareth Matthews, in his book The Philosophy of Childhood, asserts that “it is imperative that we not let the results of Piaget’s genuinely remarkable experiments set our educational agenda or define for us the capacity for thought and reflection in young children.” Mathews disputes the notion that progress in development is accumulated; instead, he feels that children are more open to ideas at a younger age. With that said, the structure of early childhood learning within elementary school environments are arguably built on the foundation presupposed within Piaget’s stage-theory, which impedes and hinders an intrinsic exploration of ideas from an early age due to assumptions surrounding the cognitive nature of brain development.

In other words, assigned tasks in schools are often focused on rote memorization, comprehension, and following instructions throughout the duration of a childhood, which often leads to feelings of disillusionment and a distinct lack of interest in subjects.

Rarely do we encounter teenaged students who seek to explore issues about the nature and technique of critical thought as a method of establishing a reliable basis for claims, beliefs, and attitudes about the world. This, admittedly, is a subversive statement without substantial verification to support it and primarily based on circumstantial and anecdotal evidence of the author. Nevertheless, the majority of students are what I deem “reluctant learners,” which are students who are used to following directions that lead to a quantifiable outcome which is most often unrelated to the exploration of multiple interpretations that are useful in engaging the empathetic imagination.

This notion of the reluctant learner is made even more apparent through standardized assessment procedures such as tests or evaluations when the student has repeatedly failed in traditional schooling due to neurologically based disorders such as Dyslexia, Dysgraphia, Dyscalculia, Language-Based Disorders, and Processing Disorders.

Accordingly, it becomes necessary to re-frame traditional pedagogical methodology employed within classrooms and work to create more dynamic and nurturing environments that embrace creative problem solving skills in order to aid in motivating older students to embrace their own moral and intellectual development. This is not to underscore the philosophical failings of Outcome-based education or Paulo Freire’s Banking Model of education; rather it is to highlight the necessity of re-framing curricula to focus on problem-based learning through the employment of Socratic Questioning and John Dewey’s philosophy of Pragmatism.

Does Homework Help or Hurt?

Homework frustration2

Photo by Shayla Beley

Homework has been a controversial topic pretty much since education became free and compulsory throughout much of the United States at the turn of the last century. Homework has been labeled criminal by some and was even blamed for childhood mortality! The essential question is this: Is homework worth it?

The Costs

To answer that deceptively simple question we have to build a little balance sheet of costs and benefits; the costs of homework include time, in many cases a substantial time investment from students and often from parents as well. The amount of time spent on homework on average has increased in recent years. A recent survey of 1000 public high school teachers shows that on average each teacher assigns 3.5 hours of homework per week. That’s each teacher, and now remembers that typically students have about 5 academic classes. For those of you without an abacus that amounts to an average of 17.5 hours of homework per week. And now remember that’s on top of the 35 or so hours they are actually at school. Time spent at school plus time spent on homework equals 52.5 hours per week on average. Now factor in extra-curricular activities, sports, band, clubs, and so forth. Gee, why are kids so stressed out these days?

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that it’s probably no accident that homework as increased along with teacher accountability. There seems to be a kind of top-down pressure with students and their families occupying the unenviable bottom position. If teachers are going to be held accountable for educational outcomes as measured by prescribed, standardized tests, then they are going to hold students’ feet to the fire by heaping on the homework in the hopes that students and parents will pick up whatever slack is left from incomplete mastery in the classroom. Missing or late homework assignments are punished with draconian grade reductions. Oh, this assignment is 1 day late? We’ll just knock 20% off.  More than 3 days? We’ll just factor in a big fat zero. That should completely destroy any hope a grade you can feel good about! Thus, teaching is gradually but inexorably ceasing to be a collaborative project among students, teachers, and parents to cultivate young minds and has instead become an impersonal process based on fear of penalties. Teachers are penalized for underperforming students in a variety of ways that can include reductions in status, pay, and even job-loss, or in the case of a brilliant new Massachusetts proposal even loss of license to teach! Students are punished with low grades and all of the twisted, agonizing fall-out of school-related anxiety and disappointed, stressed-out parents.

So back to that balance sheet: precious time taken from family life or just being a kid, parental stress, student anxiety and aversion to school, all consequences of the shift away from collaborative learning and shifting of responsibility and penalties. Those are some steep costs, so I guess it must all be worthwhile, right? Many good parents would gladly accept at least some of these burdens if it really meant their kids were getting a top-notch education. But…

Is it worth it?

Not according to professional contrarian Alfie Kohn (and others). Kohn’s damning testimony is once again being paraded around the blogosphere; there’s little hard evidence that homework produces any measureable educational benefits, at least before secondary level schooling, and even at that level the benefits are modest at best. Meanwhile, those legendary pedagogues in Finland dole out little in the way of homework even as their students repeatedly top the world rankings. Egalitarians like French president Francoise Hollande who proposed banning homework in 2012 point out that student from wealthier families with a relative abundance of resources have a disproportionate advantage in completing homework assignments. One recent headline from Florida vividly illustrates his point: Miami-Dade libraries are overcrowded with students waiting in line to get on the internet to complete their math homework because they have no internet access at home. Clearly these kids have a much tougher time completing their homework than their wealthier counterparts with the luxury of broadband wifi at home. But the disparity goes much deeper than that. Wealthier kids tend to have more educated parents who have more free time. They also have more books at home and more educational experiences overall (think museum and library trips, international travel, etc.).

The bottom line from research conducted on the effectiveness of homework is that there is little conclusive evidence that homework improves educational outcomes. At the elementary level there is no correlation with greater success. At the secondary level there seems to be some modest correlation with better outcomes, but results varied by subject and type of homework assigned. So the question now is..

Is homework ever a Good Idea?

Generalizations are always dangerous, (and ironic statements are sometimes fun to write). It’s important to keep in mind circumstances and types of assignments. Not all assignments are equal. Anything that might qualify as “busy work”, like lengthy repetitive assignments, are certainly ill advised. The occasional assignment though that for reasons of practicality are better done at home and are part of a meaningful endeavor still have their place and can be wonderful enriching opportunities, ways of taking learning out of the classroom and making it a “real life” experience. Here’s one other exception:  boarding schools with supervised study halls which are basically extensions of the classroom and of the learning day have the requisite time and resources to negate many of the harsh costs that others must pay. In these circumstances homework can bolster learning while inculcating good study habits. Otherwise though, I would make the most of class time and save the homework assignments for when they really matter.



The Individual and the Classroom

Monday, June 1, 2015

When thinking about the philosophy of teaching, there was one particular aspect of the text that struck me throughout the second half of On Liberty by John Stuart…

The Problem-Solving Humanities Classroom?

Friday, January 16, 2015

Math is an abstract subject which, to the novice especially, can easily become divorced from its real-world applications, devolving into a mechanical, step-by-step following of procedures. That’s one…

Should Students Have Phones in the Classroom?

Monday, July 21, 2014

Here’s an article on an apposite topic for our times by colleague and guest contributor Jane Alwis.   Educators and school administrators appear to be split over the…


Promoting Social Justice Through the Exploration of Literature

Thursday, April 17, 2014

By Kim Bonica, high school English teacher One of the many goals of any educational institution is to help shape students into educated, well-rounded, independent thinkers who will…


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