The necessity of failure

FrustrationYou may have a fresh start any moment you choose, for this thing that we call ‘failure’ is not the falling down, but the staying down. – Mary Pickford





I have vivid memories of learning to ride my bike. We lived way out on Rural Route number two, ostensibly in the community of Humansville, MO. In reality we lived in a sparsely inhabited area in which there were vast tracts of open fields surrounded by equally vast virgin forests. Our family home was located on a gentle slope, through which our half mile, chat covered, driveway ran directly down to the dusty gravel road. If one turned left out of that driveway it would lead one into miles of country roads, and tar paper shacks. Turning right would eventually lead one into town, but only after crossing a bridge that must have, in its time, looked like a marvel of engineering to the mound builders of Cahokia.

It was in this rustic setting that I began the process of learning to ride my bike.  It was slow going, primarily due to the fact that I was blessed with an astounding lack of balance. Matters were not helped by my father’s inability to clearly articulate his expectations, and his colossal lack of patience when I failed to meet his unstated expectations.

I did, eventually, learn to ride my bike. I did so by breaking away from the instruction of my father, and working at my own pace towards a clearly established goal. I knew what I wanted, and I had a clear vision of what it would look like when I achieved it. Every afternoon, in the muggy Missouri summer, I pushed my bike to the top of the hill, clambered up onto the seat, and then began the slow descent through the Black Walnut grove, attempting to stop before I hit the barbed wire fence. Time and time again I failed, miserably. I still bear the scars to prove it.

As a professional educator I have dedicated every resource I have at my disposal towards the singular goal of student learning. As a goal it is no different than the goal I had for myself as a child, and yet I find it so very difficult to gauge my success, or to determine if I am any closer to my goal. I have, throughout my career, been terrified of failure for myself and for my students. I have spent sleepless nights worrying about standardized tests, about my lesson plans, about my faculty meetings, about any of one of several hundred decisions made during any given day on the job. I have often been paralyzed by the magnitude of the responsibility inherent to the smallest tasks associated with my chosen profession. The consequences of failure are too dire to contemplate.

Failure has historically been construed to mean a student has not met the necessary requirements utilized for the purpose of grading/sorting/ranking. My concern is that under the traditional grading system, dominating the educational landscape, a student’s grade may have very little to do with learning. A grade is usually an indicator of how well a student has performed in the algorithmic task of completing assignments on time and ensuring they are done within the narrowly established parameters of the teacher. Failure within such a system is not a clear indicator of student learning, or lack thereof.

In a faculty meeting a few years ago I challenged my teachers with the following scenario I borrowed from, “The Collaborative Administrator” published by Solution Tree. The scenario runs as follows:

In a first-semester freshman English class, a student has a score of 45% going into the final. This student has been a discipline problem the entire semester and has not done much homework. No matter what score this student receives on the final, he cannot pass. The entire semester was designed so that students understand the fundamentals and concepts of writing a five-paragraph essay; the final is the culmination of that effort. Since you do not trust this student, you stand over him and watch him write his essay so you know he did not cheat. When you grade the essay, you find it is perfection.  He learned every first-semester English standard. What semester grade do you assign?

The room erupted in conversation. I thought for a moment I might be tarred and feathered for daring to ask such an inflammatory question. Within my faculty, as expected, the answers were all over the spectrum. If a student has mastered the all of the learning required should their grade not be a reflection of that mastery rather than the neatly designed hoops we have carefully and systematically placed in front of our learners?

Failure is not the same as failing. Failure is an opportunity to learn, to grow, and become better than we have been. As educators we must adjust our thinking about education from the traditional algorithmic structure in which the educational systems main purpose was to sort and rank students. In the 21st century education should be a heuristic endeavor, relative and responsive to needs of individual learners within the system. Our task is no longer one of preparing students to enter the workforce; it is instead become the daunting task of teaching students to learn how to learn.

To meet the needs of learners in the modern education environment, we must change the way we think about failure. Failure is the beginning of learning, not the end.



  1. Cap Lee said:

    Failure is your next best teacher. It is unfortunate that the system and philosophy of education doesn’t allow this to happen. In life we learn from failure, In school we fail from failure.

    We must change that! And I kinow how.

    Cap Lee
    Milwaukee, WI

    April 9, 2011
  2. Kent Julian said:

    Excellent post…

    As a student who struggled and had SAT scores so low that I couldn’t get accepted into college without developmental studies, yet went on to succeed both educationally and professionally, this line really connected with me: “Our task is no longer one of preparing students to enter the workforce; it is instead become the daunting task of teaching students to learn how to learn.” You hit the nail on the head!

    Thanks for sharing.

    April 9, 2011
    • sdill said:

      Thank you for taking the time to comment.
      I am pleased that my words struck a chord with you.

      Historically school has been a lottery for many students…if they get the right teacher, if someone takes the time to help them learn…they MIGHT thrive in the system.
      The stakes are too high for our schools and our societies. We have to eliminate happenstance as a reason for success and immerse ourselves in the business of understanding our craft.

      April 9, 2011
      • Kent Julian said:

        I was fortunate. I had a couple of teachers in particular that really invested in me, both as a student and a person.

        Again, thanks for posting. It’s a great one!

        April 10, 2011
  3. […] Dill, here at Connected Principals, The Necessity of Failure Failure is not the same as failing. Failure is an opportunity to learn, to grow, and become better […]

    April 12, 2011
  4. Mark Linton said:

    I really enjoyed reading this post. As an elementary school administrator I encourage faculty members to take risks and, if things don’t go as planned, reflect and adjust. Often times students aren’t given the opportunity to reflect and adjust.

    April 17, 2011

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