The Misuse of Failure in American Public Schools


By Scott Riley

I have long believed that the grading and assessment systems used most often in American schools are essentially backward.

I received high grades throughout public school and on into college and graduate school. I like to make sure that the words summa cum laude from undergraduate school and 4.0 – Phi Kappa Phi from graduate school are clearly displayed on my resume. But, that’s about all that’s worth. Yes, I had some opportunities in life because of my academic record, and my appearance as an intelligent man, but the negative impact of some of the poor choices I made was much greater.

We reward students with high grades when they answer a question or do something correctly, and give low grades to students who do not. It seems logical, because in a teacher’s mind students who answer questions correctly must be the ones who were paying attention and therefore understand the material. We call that competency.

Unfortunately, this traditional, albeit logical approach discounts human emotion and feeling, the impact of which strongly influences not only how students answer questions or demonstrate skill, but their understanding and ability as well.

In the last 15 – 20 years, there has been a large volume of writing about accepting failure as part of the process for understanding. A prime example is the often repeated words of Michael Jordan about how many shots he missed in his lifetime.

I propose a more radical approach. One in which our schools start to not only accept failure as necessary, but also embrace it as essential by incorporating it into the assessment process.

In order to do this, we need to first re-examine our understanding of the purpose of education. What is it? Is it to reward and celebrate the success of those who are the best at getting the right answers? Or, should it be just as often, if not more often, to acknowledge and reward those who are best at learning?

If we begin to focus our efforts on teaching how to learn, instead of just what to learn, our society will improve drastically. When we teachers value the learning process as much as we do the course material, we will begin to focus our efforts in a way that helps our students value it as well. As a result, they will be more successful in their future lives and contribute much more to our society.

We all know that the self-worth of most students is dramatically affected by the grades they receive. When they get a failing grade, they inevitably feel like a failure themselves. Fear of failure = fear of making decisions = poor decisions. This is huge, and it affects not just a majority of students, but most of the people in the entire country.

In order to reverse this trend, I believe that we must work toward an assessment system that viably rewards failure. We must teach our students, both young and old, that failure is not a state of being, but rather an ongoing, fluid and essential part of the process for success. Once we, the teachers embrace this concept, the logistics will become more and more apparent.

For example, what if a student was graded not only by high scores, but also by the number of credible failures? Credible meaning failures as a result of sincere attempts. If failure is in this or some other way rewarded, it will become valuable. When teachers and students begin to constructively look at failure as a good thing, our students will be less afraid to try. They will be less afraid to try new things, alternate approaches and make more attempts to achieve, well, everything. Their confidence and self-worth will grow. Innovation and creativity will explode.

Embracing and rewarding failure in our public school system is one way to incorporate emotional education. Once we open our minds to the fact that human beings are complex creatures who make decisions and approach life using feelings, as well as logic, many other approaches will become apparent. We will see the great possibilities this new view provides for a better life. Our world can become a safer and much more welcoming place.