Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Resolve to Stop Using the Word "Fail"

This year I want to see educators using the word "fail" less. In 2013 and 2014 it seemed like it was the word to use when it came to discussing student resiliency.

Half a century ago Winston Churchill talked about failure not being fatal. He then went on to emphasize the importance of not giving up. That is the message we want our students to carry with them.

Unfortunately, in the world of education, we have associated the word "failure" with grades and academics. If you aren't very smart, you fail. If you aren't successful in a class you are a failure.  This all comes down to the idea that we must assign a grade to everything our students do in the classroom. 

So now schools are trying to have our students build grit. We hear about agency and wanting our students to never give up. There are dozens of posters out there proclaiming failure as a starting point. I was even guilty of printing out signs that stated "FAIL = First Attempt In Learning."

But what are we saying? Is it really OK for our students to fail at something on their first try? Don't we want to build a layer of knowledge so that our students feel somewhat successful on their first attempt? Don't we want our students attempting a second or third try because they are feeling like they are figuring it out?

We need to come up with another term besides "fail." Remove that term from your lexicon. Failure should only be used when a student is totally unsuccessful after multiple attempts. And, even then, we need to be there supporting them.

My nice-sounding suggestion has some hurdles if it were put into practice. There are those parents (and institutions) who consider grades more important than, or at least equal to, learning.  What if every kid who had a solid understanding of a concept passed? Then none of those students would be failures. Is that a bad thing? There still would be people who would want to know how the students compared on a pecking order.

Assessment and grading is such a big topic I'll leave those for another day. But let's pause before we use the word "fail." Let's not encourage students to fail first. Let's encourage them to try again.