Why we need kids to fail

I have worked in and out of education for the last 15 years. My first foray was in my early thirties, when, upon discovering I was going to be a single parent, I thought I’d better do something “practical” with my Arts degree (apart from serving fries with that!).

I’d always enjoyed school, and was good at it, and what with the school holidays and civilised hours, teaching seemed like a natural fit for a soon-to-be single parent. So I signed up and completed my Graduate Diploma in Education, teaching English and Studies of Society and Environment (SOSE). In my first teaching job in a senior secondary school, I broadened my horizons into literacy generally and English as a Second Language (ESL) specifically. Most of the students at this school were “last chance” kids. We were their last chance to complete their South Australian Certificate of Education (SACE). Some came to us because they had found it difficult in the “normal” school system and were ostracised for being different e.g. gay or emo. Some had criminal records and drug habits. Some just needed the extra attention that we – as a small school – could give them.

My educational philosophy has always been a hotch-potch of constructivist methodology, critical literacy, relationships building  and teaching the “real life” skills the students need to be successful, whether it’s going to university or entering the workplace. I’m a firm believer in the “tough love” approach in a classroom (regardless of the age of the students) where I set clear expectations and set high standards for achievement. In my class, they work hard. But they learn a lot, and not just about content that needs to be covered. Randy Pausch calls it “head fakes”. Randy’s last lecture before he died of pancreatic cancer is below. It’s long – over an hour – but well worth viewing.

At the and of the day, I like to think (and maybe I flatter myself) that students learn a lot about the real world from me.

Which is why I fail kids. And why I’m not alone in thinking this needs to happen more often. In life, if you aren’t good enough, you fail. You don’t get that job, promotion, or big deal project. A classroom should mirror real life, otherwise what are we doing?

The unfortunate thing is that many in education – particularly those in leadership – don’t like to fail kids. And in my opinion, it has less to do with protecting the self-esteem of a failing kid than it has to do with the user-pays commodification of education generally.  Most schools are vying for funding based on numbers; less students mean less money. I have first hand experience of this when I was teaching at the senior secondary college I mentioned earlier.

I had a group of students who were attempting Stage 1 (the old Year 11), and I failed 3 of them. They hadn’t done the work, plain and simple, so they received an RNM or Requirements Not Met. I submitted my grades to SSABSA via the school, which was the correct protocol. I found out a week or so later that the Principal had intervened after the students had complained about failing, and she had changed the grade to a pass before the grades were submitted to SSABSA. I was mortified for a couple of reasons:

  • it was unethical and unprofessional
  • it was underhanded and sneaky
  • it undermined my credibility as a teacher
  • it sent a clear message to the students that they only had to put in minimal effort – and not even that – to be successful.

When I confronted the Principal, I was advised that: The students would get sorted out at Stage 2, so it didn’t really matter. The school was small, and struggled to attract and keep students, mainly because it was under-resourced and rundown. When the students complained about their fail, the implication was that they would find another school who would pass them. The school could not afford for this to happen. So it mattered to the school that I failed those students.

But what about the students? What does an unearned – and cavalier – pass mean to them? What message does it send to them about how the world operates? It is my contention that students like these have been invariably set up to fail in the world by not being failed in the classroom.

Let me explain. After a round-about journey, I’m now teaching in the vocational education and training system. I can happily say that most of my students are hard-working. They are ethical. They really want to learn. I can challenge them to undertake difficult tasks that are outside their comfort zone and they rise to that challenge. But there some students in my class – and in other classes –  that seem to believe that because they have paid their Tafe fees, they are entitled to a pass. Because they attend, sometimes, and do the work in a half-arsed way, they feel are entitled to pass. And the key word is not deserved (as some may argue), but entitled. And they will argue, beg, cajole, intimidate, manipulate and harass to get that pass.

This sense of entitlement – and the behaviours (as per above) that accompany it – will not serve these particular students well. Consider job-hunting. The normal job application process is to tailor a CV, respond to selection criteria (anywhere up to 8-10 pages sometimes), write a cover letter, attend an interview (or two) and undergo psychometric testing. The time component  alone would mean that one could feel entitled to winning the role. Except this isn’t the case, as we know. No one wins a role on the time spent on the application. How will these students cope with NOT winning job after job after job?  And it does happen, as we know. What if they eventually win a role, but then there are no further promotions? That well-honed sense of entitlement won’t serve them well there, either. No wonder this generation seems to self-medicate more than any other.

Failure builds resiliance. Failure is an opportunity for growth. Failure helps you learn about the world, about others, about yourself. Passing students when they don’t deserve it is failing each and every one of them. It is cruel, not kind. Passing students when they don’t deserve it because of money or numbers is even worse. And it is a sad indictment on our society and how we view education.

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0 comments

  1. Fantastic blog! I am horrified by the story of a fail being changed into a pass. I thought one of the first rules of assessment was validity. How was that a valid act? Yes, the classroom needs to prepare students for real life, and that includes overcoming failure; understanding why it happened and learning what action is required to ensure it does not happen again. Part of a teacher’s role is to challenge a student, to take them on a journey, at the end of which they emerge as something different. Teaching is about transformation; giving students the ability to synthesise knowledge, experiment with it, see where it can take them, and how that knowledge changes the way they interact with and view the world around them. It is not about rubber-stamping poor quality work to pay the bills.

    1. Thank you, Caroline! You are so right – teaching is about transformation. If our students have not emerged from our classrooms with a better understanding of themselves, the world and their place in it and contribution to it, then we have failed as teachers.

      By the way, changing grades is much more common than we think, unfortunately. Validity, reliability and rigour fly out the window where money, numbers and (potentially) jobs are concerned.

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