Instruction and certification: the consequences of failure

I wanted to take a few minutes to ruminate more deeply on something I said in passing in a comment thread a few weeks back.  Here’s what I said:

When a student has not been allowed to fail, they will learn that failure isn’t something that can happen. When a college professor gives them an F, the result is confusion.

Unfortunately, failure *is* something that can happen, regardless of the attitude one takes towards it in primary and secondary school. It happens with devastating results, sometimes. Now, school is supposed to be a place where you can fail without devastating consequences, where you can learn from your failures and become better at things, but failure in school is often seen these days as a devastating consequence itself. (e.g., YOU RUINED MY CHANCE TO GET INTO HARVARD!)

That’s a problem. Certification should be the secondary mission of schools, not the primary mission.

There are really three different points here.

First, there’s an assertion that failure is always a possibility.  That’s probably true: one can avoid failure only by never attempting anything not guaranteed success, which is itself a sort of failure… at life.  We’ll come back to this in a moment.

Second, there’s an assertion that school should be a place where failure is constructive.  That’s a much dicier proposition.  We all know the old saying: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”   If you don’t know it, you should learn it, because it’s a good saying.  But there’s another saying, too: “Insanity is trying the same thing over and over again expecting different results.”  If you consider both of these sayings together, the resulting imperative seems to be something like “If at first you don’t succeed, keep altering your approach until you do.”  And that’s really great advice.

Of course, there are times when you don’t want to have to try again.  Operation Overlord comes to mind this time of year.  No one wants to fail when they’re invading Europe; it’s too expensive, too much is on the line.  Failure isn’t an option in such situations; if Eisenhower was pushed back into the sea and tens of thousands of soldiers died for naught, well, it would take great presence of mind to say, “Let’s try this again, but put the seventh division over here this time.”  No, you drill and practice as best you can before the big invasion, and try to work out the possibilities of failure in a low-consequence environment.

Whether success is a must or merely a goal depends on the consequences.   That last-second three-point shot isn’t a laboratory for experiment because the game rides on it; if you’re a professional NBA player, you’ve already had all the consequence-free practice money can buy.  Now’s the time to succeed.

School, I’d like to argue, needs to be a place for consequence-free practice.  My favourite analogy for academic education is martial arts; it’s not actually an analogy, because I think they’re the same thing.  Schools essentially are (or, I argue, should be) kung-fu academies for the mind.  When you walk into a martial arts dojo, you practice.  That’s not to say you don’t get hurt: people get hurt all the time in practice.  That’s how you can tell that the practice is really good practice: you’ve got all sorts of bumps and bruises.  But they aren’t the sorts of bumps and bruises you get when you’re on the ground in an alley doing your level best to drive your elbow through someone’s temple before they choke you to death.

So I’m not saying school should be completely consequence-free — but the stakes need to be lower than they are in the environment for which one is training.

And oddly, they aren’t.  They’re higher.   Yes, it’s true that how you do in college, say, matters more than how you do in high school.  But that’s only half the story, because where you do how you do in college depends on how you did in high school.  If you get a 3.9 at Yale, then yes, that makes up for your 2.1 in High School.  But good luck getting in to Yale.  And that’s because high school (and, let us be frank, to a great extent college) is a certification system, which brings me to my third point.

High schools have three jobs, really.  First, they need to keep the kids off the streets, corralled, and out from underfoot.  I personally find this role of the high school to be both demeaning to the teenagers, counterproductive to actual learning, and immoral.

Second, High Schools need to instruct their students in a certain body of knowledge.  Now, this body of knowledge is schizoid in the extreme, and it’s created substantially by committee, so it’s not what anyone would call a “coherent” body of knowledge.  But there needs to be some teaching going on, some imparting of skills, some training for the rest of one’s life.  This is the function I consider absolutely primary.

Finally, High Schools give diplomas: they certify a certain level of competence.  Just how much competence they certify and how worthwhile their certifications are will vary from school to school and is the subject of many an essay, op-ed, and book.  But that’s the third job, and it’s the certification that is driving all the consequences that I was talking about above.  I want to argue that the certification mission is substantially interfering with the education mission, precisely because it is causing the practice itself to be less practice and more real-performance.  That “F” on your English essay should be a signal to try again, to rewrite it with a new technique, a new approach.  Instead, it’s 20% of your grade, which is 4% of your final GPA.  In other words, that ONE essay that you just wrote is .8% of your final GPA in high school.

Bruises acquired in a martial arts dojo during practice heal, and the students emerge stronger, wiser, and more skilled.  The bruises stay in the dojo, and in the mind of the student.  We need to figure out a way to keep students’ failures inside the school, to give them more opportunity to practice — just practice.  How many ungraded assignments that get substantial feedback have any of you given in the last few weeks?  In my entire high school career, the only ungraded practice I had was in French.  Everything else was graded, it went on the record, it became part of my certification.

That’s super-useful if you’re the person depending on the certification, and you just want people with natural talent who pick things up right away.  But it’s horrible for the student who might need a little practice.

Of course, you might question (as many of my students do when we discuss these things) whether students would actually do any ungraded practice assignments.  That argument — that grades are primarily about motivation — seems to me at once to be a good one and to prove my point.  The reasons that grades motivate is because they matter.  If they didn’t matter, they wouldn’t motivate.  But the fact that grades matter (and that everything is graded) is precisely why I think there’s a problem.

I’ve gone on long enough for a blog post.  Too long, probably.  But I wanted to try to get my head around some of these ideas and I think it’s helped.

Comments

  1. I recently had this discussion with a student. His objective is to get the best grade he can with the least amount of effort on his part. My primary objective is to prepare him for the next math class he will take. I try to use his objective to achieve mine. Other than that, I look at grades as a way to communicate to the next teacher what he/she can expect from that student.

  2. What a thoughtful and interesting post.

    I have thought about this subject a great deal. You have gotten me to think about it in a few different ways. Here’s a point I’d like to add:

    Failure can be important even in high-stakes situations. We need to learn what we can’t do as well as what we can. The idea that all students should be good at everything is ridiculous. Some are just better at math than at history–or find themselves enjoying math and grasping it relatively easily. These proclivities and preferences help them figure out what to do.

    Yes, there’s also value in studying things that we don’t do well. As a kid I wanted to be a gymnast, and I just wasn’t limber. But I worked very hard at it and got better at it than I would have if I hadn’t worked. It would have been silly to keep on trying to be a gymnast, but it wasn’t a bad thing to do at the time. Also, some people choose fields in which they are not extraordinarily talented, and their very struggle with it turns into good work.

    But failing an audition, failing a test, or losing a race can be important signals. They can tell us to work at it some more, or they can tell us that our efforts might be better spent elsewhere. The message we take from such an experience may well be a sign of what we truly want to do and are capable of doing.

  3. Mark Roulo says:

    How many ungraded assignments that get substantial feedback have any of you given in the last few weeks?

    No!

    Or maybe, “not quite.”

    The assignments need to be graded (and, hopefully, marked up with non-grade comments). This tells the student how he/she is doing.

    But grading the assignment doesn’t mean that it must be part of the final grade for the class. Think of spring training baseball games as an example. You get feedback in terms of team scores and stats, but these games don’t count towards the team’s final W-L results for the season.

    We want (some percentage) of the assignments to be graded, but only to provide information to the students on how they are doing.

    One *BIG* problem here is that many/most students won’t try very hard on the assignments which won’t be part of the final class grade. But this really comes back to the fundamental problem that many students actually don’t care much about learning what we want to teach them. And this is a whole ‘nuther thing…

  4. Mark Roulo says:

    Oh, yeah, one more thing.

    Great post, Michael!

  5. Foobarista says:

    This is why The Big Test approached used in Asia is actually not a bad thing. You don’t get to fail The Big Test, but since it’s often the _only_ thing used to determine whether you go to college and what college you go to, you can screw up occasionally in high school and get into a top university. My (Chinese) wife was the sort of kid who nailed classes she liked and blew off classes that didn’t hold her interest, but she absolutely nailed The Big Test and got into a top university.

    The American system of grading everything produces incredibly risk-averse elites as they always have to be “on”.

  6. As always, your post largely ignores the lower half of the ability and curve, where students are not only allowed to fail but do it constantly. In schools with too many low income/low ability kids, even the able kids start to blow off Fs–not just one grade, but an entire semester or year’s worth.

    You are incorrect about high schools giving diplomas denoting a certain amount of competence. High schools were found failing in that regard–hence most states have high school exit exams. No pass, no certification–so it’s not the high school, but the test that grants certification.

    And, by the way, I only count tests towards the grade. All classwork is ungraded; the kids do the work because they know they need to do well on the test. I don’t give homework.

  7. Roger Sweeny says:

    Ah, I remember the first time I gave an essay assignment in 9th grade science. It called for some creativity on the students’ part, as well as demonstrating that they understood some of the concepts of the chapter.

    Most of the submitted essays weren’t very good (some put most of their effort into getting illustrations for their essay, something I hadn’t even asked for) but I had told them it was just a first draft. So I handed back the essays with an interim grade and a lot of comments. A shockingly large number of students just returned the rough draft as the final essay. Most made a few changes, but only in direct response to a comment, and with as few words as possible. Only a few essays showed any real attempt to make them better. As a naive young teacher, I was devastated.

  8. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Cal says, in the way only she can:

    As always, your post largely ignores the lower half of the ability and curve, where students are not only allowed to fail but do it constantly.

    I didn’t say they weren’t allowed to fail. I said they weren’t allowed to fail without consequences, that failure wasn’t failure-at-training, but failure-at-life.

    In schools with too many low income/low ability kids, even the able kids start to blow off Fs–not just one grade, but an entire semester or year’s worth.

    And when it comes time to leave those storied, battered halls, they get punished by life. Hard. Now maybe you’re simply attempting to make an argument that goes something like this: “Look, kids fail all the time. They just don’t care. Giving them practice fails wouldn’t matter because they don’t care about real fails.”

    I’d probably respond in two ways. First — well, fine. Neither do I. Horses and water and all that. But second, and far more importantly, I might point to the fact that a few F’s when it counts can quickly translate into resignation. If you wanted to design a system to destroy hope, you couldn’t do better than to put giant F’s on people’s permanent records that follow them around. Why bother trying, after all, if you’ve already screwed things up irreparably?

    You are incorrect about high schools giving diplomas denoting a certain amount of competence.

    Well, you’re incorrect about what I wrote, so I guess that makes us even. I seem to recall talking about what the job of the high school is, and explicitly reserving the question of whether they were performing it or not.

    High schools were found failing in that regard–hence most states have high school exit exams. No pass, no certification–so it’s not the high school, but the test that grants certification.

    You might be partially right about this… but why do we even bother with grades at all, then, if the only certification that matters is the exit exam? I think the answer is pretty clear: the exit exam isn’t all that matters. In fact, a lot of them are taken in 10th grade. You don’t get to skip high school (in most states) merely because you happen to have passed.

    And, by the way, I only count tests towards the grade. All classwork is ungraded; the kids do the work because they know they need to do well on the test. I don’t give homework.

    Then you’re doing exactly what I’d like to see more of. I know this is going to be hard for you to believe, but we’re on the same page here, philosophically.

    With one remaining exception, I think: If the exit exam is all that matters, as you argued above, then why do “they need to do well” on your tests? To what purpose your grades at all? Why have them? And why would your students think they are important?

  9. tim-10-ber says:

    Michael — excellent post.

    Mark — I agree with your comments.

    A thought…all work is graded but you drop the two lowest grades. This enables the kid to understand where they need to improve and if they do they don’t fail. Just a thought…it has worked for my kids.

    My district does not have the true exit exam. They do have end of course exams and they are an utter joke. In a conversation with a teacher she said the kids got As and Bs on the EOC exam when they should have failed the course. Because the EOC counts 20% of the grade they will now pass when they have not come close mastering the content to be successful in the next level of math.

    I confirmed this with a parent. Her daughter received a 97 on the EOC algebra I exam. However her GPA for the class was a 79 or 81. This nonsense needs to be stopped….

    If, if you rely solely on the EOC exam then the tests need to be legit. Right now they are making the graduation rates seem better but they are in fact based on a lie…the truth can be hard to take but state after state is lying to their kids. Tennessee was one of the worse…sadly it hasn’t stopped.

  10. Great post!

  11. I know this is going to be hard for you to believe, but we’re on the same page here, philosophically

    Don’t be silly; I know this perfectly well. I just find your pontificating annoying, to say nothing of inaccurately all-encompassing.

    And here is what you never understand: I am not attempting to make an argument. I am merely pointing out the flaws in yours.

    why do we even bother with grades at all, then, if the only certification that matters is the exit exam?

    Oh, come now. That’s an absurd question that you’d know the answer to if you stopped to think for just one moment. A high school diploma is the basement. High schools weren’t setting a proper basement, so the states stepped in.

    While colleges bleat about the importance of grades, their behavior clearly indicates that high school grades aren’t useful–the first line of defense against remedial courses at most schools is not an A average, but a baseline score in the much-maligned SAT or ACT.

    Until affirmative action bans, universities relied on external test scores as much or as more as grades, because they knew how unreliable grades are.

    Grades are a fraud. I think that’s the 50th time I’ve mentioned that in this blog alone.

    If the exit exam is all that matters, as you argued above, then why do “they need to do well” on your tests? To what purpose your grades at all? Why have them? And why would your students think they are important?

    I didn’t argue that the exit exam is all that matters. I didn’t argue anything at all. I asserted as a point of fact that high school diplomas don’t denote competency.

  12. Peace Corps says:

    I have at least 8 students this semester that will soon find that failure is an option. All have been given the opportunity to retest, but they will not come for individual tutoring and seem unable to study on their own. I’ve tried everything I can think of, but at some point the student has to want to succeed.