Should students be allowed to fail?

     I came across the article below which I thought would make for some interesting summer reading and perhaps discussion. Especially in light of the recent emphasis on student retention and success. The article sums up the true nature of success in college, in a more articulate fashion than I ever could provide and in a very simple and direct thesis which also applies to how people succeed in life.

     I was attracted to the article below because my experiences bear the speaker out. I have never had a student fail any of my classes in my entire career when they have made a good effort! Some students need to make a very strong effort and a few a herculean effort to pass algebra, but when they have made the effort they succeeded. This might include extra help from me or the tutoring available, working with a special support group, getting advising from faculty and staff, to name a few areas of support for students. But the bottom line still remains that success depends upon the student effort.

   My questions might be then do we convince our students that this is the case and 2. can we really motivate them to make the effort if they are not self motivated?


Educators Urged to Allow Their Students to Fail June 28, 2009 10:50 PM   

Success is not as easy as it appears to be on first glance, according to noted author Malcolm Gladwell who gave a thought provoking keynote Sunday evening at the National Education Computing Conference in Washington, D.C.before a capacity crowd.

Gladwell, author of the New York Times best sellers the Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers, addressed several thousand teachers about what learning really looks like.

"What you get [in education] is a simple function of what you put in. That is the beautiful and powerful idea behind learning... Sometimes the struggle to learn something is where the actual learning lies," he said.

Gladwell used the example of the well known rock band Fleetwood Mac saying that it took them ten years and sixteen album failures before they produced their masterpiece Rumours. In the years before their success, they had a rocky path that included losing their founder Peter Green for a few years before he rejoined the group.

"When we look at people who tend to master something, we have a tendency to telescope how long that took place. We underestimate how much time or energy it takes," Gladwell said.

When we examine the history of people who have mastered a field, we will see that on average it takes about four hours per day for ten years or what Gladwell calls the 10,000 mile rule. He gave an example of the Beatles who had played together 1200 times before they experienced success when they came to America.

So how does this relate to learning and the classroom in the 21st century?

It shows that success comes with hard work, according to Gladwell. Few people succeed without hardwork. He gave another example of the KIPP schools that has one of the highest student success rates in the country with low income students. "Those students go to school 60% more than their counterparts. Their motto is "Success is hard work," he said.

Gladwell stressed that one of the things we need to change in the schools is the attitude that success comes easily. Students need to know that to succeed they need to work hard.

He is right about that. In today's world, many students in the U.S. schools aren't taught to work hard. The complain about the homework load; or they complain that the teacher wasn't clear and they can't do the homework. They don't think to figure it out themselves. In fact, schools today are worried that the students are too stressed and make adjustments. There is a trend to dumb down the curriculum so that everyone can "succeed." Schools are looking to eliminate laning or tracking of students.

Another of Gladwell's points was that people who fail but don't give up are actually better able to build on their failures. They learn how to work hard in pursuit of a goal.

In fact, he said, in compensating for a failure students are really just learning how to be better. They try harder and come up with new pathways because inherent in failure is feedback...the feedback of why you didn't succeed.

He talked about the dyslexic student who has to work very hard to get to the same point as the average student. He learns that he can't do it the way everyone else does it, but if he really wants to learn, he figures out alternative methods and in doing so he learns many other useful skills.

They learn leadership skills because they needed a group of peers around them to help them; they learn how to delegate; they learn how to problem solve and they usually perfect oral communication skills. "Their dyslexia turned out to be an an advantage, they learned how to compensate effectively."

In fact, there are many famous dyslexics who are heads of companies now--- Richard Branson, Henry Ford, Charles Schwab, just to name a few.

They never gave up trying.

Gladwell gave another example of the paradox of small class sizes. Studies are inconclusive when it comes to the importance of small class size. In fact, the students who score best on international tests come from countries where class sizes are huge--China and Japan. He hypothesized that perhaps being in large class sizes encourages students to be more self-reliant. Perhaps they are helping each other

"Perhaps here in America we don't give out kids an opportunity to flex their compensation muscle," he said. We are afraid of failure, but it is through failure that students learn. Perhaps we should change our assessment system to allow students to make mistakes without the stigma of failure.

Failure allows for feedback and for modifications. In each instance of failure we learn, but if we refuse to try again, we are lost. Persistence and hard work are the keys, he said.

He ended commenting on an upcoming panel discussion entitled "Bricks and Mortar Schools are Detrimental to the Future of Education."

Gladwell said, "Whether it is bricks and mortar doesn't matter; what matters is how the learning takes place, not where the learning takes place." The applause he got indicated that most teachers thought he was right.

Write a comment

Comments: 9
  • #1

    Susan McNaught (Sunday, 02 August 2009 11:55)

    Students do need to know that they need to work hard in order to succeed. However, the institution needs to take responsibility to
    structure things so that students are not being set up. If resources are not available, if information is not clear, if classes and tutoring are not available, then it is not the students who fail but the institution. There is no integrity in taking a student's tuition and then saying, "Work harder. We are done."

  • #2

    Susan Jones (Sunday, 02 August 2009 11:57)

    Often, the thing that needs to be remediated is that victim mindset which has been entrenched to varying degrees from lifelong experience. This would describe the student completing an assignment about learning styles because that's what s/he's been told to do, but not engaging in the process enough to be able to apply it.

    "The appeal process in and of itself is structured to help the student develop a different approach to college study" -- that is a statement also true to varying degrees. If a student examines success/failure through the 'external locus of control' context, then the appeal is a ritual that you hope will get you the piece of paper you need... and you still haven't internalized the whole concept of *knowing* stuff and owning your knowledge.

  • #3

    Susan Weertz (Sunday, 02 August 2009 11:59)

    I agree but I highly doubt there are many institutions that continually take students' money and then let them flounder. Most schools do have a stop-gap measure which highlights the students receiving Fs. After two semesters, most bar the "F" student from registration until the student has appealed. The appeal process in and of itself is structured to help the student develop a different approach to college study.

    Struggling students are notorious for playing the victim and blaming their professors for their lack of learning when in actuality the student lacks a transferrable study skills repertoire. It takes a fairly sophisticated student to understand that he is responsible for his own learning, that he must learn to compensate for the difference between the professor's instructional style and his own learning style. (Therein lies the reason why he doesn't understand the instructor's lectures). I'm not advocating that struggling students spend a lot of time on the different learning styles, trying to figure out which style or combination of styles works best for them, BUT having the ability to create visuals, for example, that work alongside one's lecture notes and textbook reading can be a tremendous help in the learning process. And yet, if the failing student never learned this counterbalance technique (never needed to know), if no one ever showed him there are different learni!

    ng styles which will help in understanding different approaches, how can we expect him to succeed?

    This is where learning specialists, SI, and tutoring play an important role in the learning process. We like to get new students using our services AFTER they have failed their first exam. These students come to us complaining they've done everything they're supposed to do and yet they still failed the test. Most of these students (usually freshman) are hanging on to the myth that all they need to do is go to class and read the text or worse: if they go to class, they don't need to read the text (or vice versa). After a brief study skills survey, it is clear to us these students, while sincere in their efforts to do well in school, have very little study skills know-how and spend little time if any studying. It's a slow and maybe even arduous process to help these students develop a core set of study skills strategies AND help them to understand how they study for one course isn't necessarily the same way they should study for another.

    The development of effective study skills involves trial and error, which can be frustrating and possibly detrimental because it can also include failure. All too often struggling students feel that if college doesn't come easy, then they must not be cut-out for it. So they give up and drop out. The point of Gladwell's keynote speech is that students need to be reminded again and again that hard work begets success. When it comes to college, there's no such thing as easy street.

  • #4

    Susan Jones (Sunday, 02 August 2009 12:02)

    Sounds like Gladwell has read Dweck's materials -- people who have a
    "growth mindset" tend to be receptive to using failure as something to grow from, while people with a "fixed mindset" think abilities are an entity that is either there, or not, thank you. Especially with math, that fixed mindset does a lot of harm. In my experience, teacher with the "when they work hard, they pass" experience do it in one of two ways: the grading system means that if the student repeats things enough, they can get a passing grade whether or not they understand what
    they're doing or, that mindset shifts.

  • #5

    Collin Pugh (Sunday, 02 August 2009 12:03)

    I do not know if other people have had trouble accessing the article
    from your blog, but I have been unsuccessful. When I click on the link, the web indicates that the page cannot be found. Is there any way for you to send the article to me in the form of an attachment? Thanks.

  • #6

    Kate Jacibson (Sunday, 02 August 2009 12:06)

    It's just a blog posting on Huffington Post concerning a keynote speech by Malcolm Gladwell to teachers of the National Education Computing Conference in Washington, D.C. The title is a bit misleading - Gladwell essentially says that we all learn from mistakes and that those who experience
    failure but don't give up are better able to build on those failures through hard work. "Gladwell stressed that one of the things we need to change in the schools is the attitude that success comes easily. Students need to know that to succeed they need to work hard."

    Here's the link:

  • #7

    Linda Riggs Mayfield (Sunday, 02 August 2009 12:09)

    Okay, Colleagues, I am now motivated. I completed a formal, IRB-approved research project a couple of years ago investigating whether students who are taught to analyze and apply their own learning styles actually intentionally do so, and for how long. The research design included statistical correlation analysis to see if those who recalled and applied got better grades than those who didn't, but the students foiled my plan: 100% of the students who had been taught learning styles as FR, at all subsequent levels, FR, SO, JR and SR, said they remembered what they had been taught, and intentionally applied it. So all I can say is that every student who was still successful enough to be in the program claimed to recall and use the information. I really need to get that into TLAR., don't I? :-) Wouldn't it be interesting to know if those who were not successful enough to still be in the program had also been recalling and applying? Another study.

  • #8

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  • #9

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