Don’t know how many “Game of Thrones” fans are out there, but a quote really grabbed my attention. Responding to someone who said they failed, a character says “Good. Now fail again.”
Although I am not trained as an educator, I have picked up a bit of the jargon and I recognize a new trend among those that want to reform education. One of the trends, which I think is a good idea, is to recharacterize what “failure” actually is, or at least, take away its sting and transform it into a “learning opportunity.” A number of authors I have read talk about the iterations of WD-40 or quote Thomas Edison.
In terms of schools and schooling, the grading system has become more and more of a mystery to me. Even growing up, the ever present fear of the dreaded big fat F seem to always crush the human spirit. Throughout my own school experience, and well into college, I was taught there was one way to do it, and by golly, if I did not do it that one way, I was wrong and “failed.” Wow, what a way to make sure a student doesn’t like school.
Allow me to switch gears a little bit and talk computer science, specifically artificial intelligence and something called “genetic algorithms.” To over-simplify, the whole point of a genetic algorithm is basically “try it and see.” For instance, say you have a maze with multiple paths and your objective is to find the shortest path. A genetic algorithm might try every single possibility and report back the length of each path, ultimately finding the shortest one. That could be tens, hundreds, or millions of “wrong” (or “bad”, “incorrect”, “not shortest”, “longer”) solutions to try. The ratio of “good” to “bad” would be 1 to something larger. It’s like Thomas Edison, “I have not failed. I’ve just found ten thousand ways that won’t work.”
But that, my friend, is learning.
Heck, lets get philosophical – that’s life. Know any people who are absolutely perfect in every single way?
The narrative these days is not so much that children need to be coddled (although some seem to make that argument), but rather that we want our children (and all learners) to figure out how to explore. Or essentially, learn on their own. Sure, there is still room for direction – certainly, it is not helpful to allow a child who is learning numbers and basic arithmetic to think that 2 + 2 = 7 just because they feel like it (if they have some reasoning, I would love to hear it *grin*). I think the point is that instead of hitting that dehumanizing buzzer of shame, address the pathway first – is it an issue of not understanding the numbers, not able to visualize, not understanding the operation? Or perhaps the student thinks it is art and 7 seems like a perfect number.
But the way our system is set up now, we simply cannot take this approach for each child. Instead, we give them lots of tests, and then we compare our children to some abstract “average.” (Little Susie scored about the same as the other 4 million students taking this test.) Our way of testing these days is an “efficient” method of stripping away all humanity from the student and turning them into some kind of performance metric. Furthermore, this approach over-emphasizes test mastery versus content mastery, and we 1) don’t have enough teachers, and 2) don’t have enough teachers who have enough time to figure out what encourages each child.
Lastly, we need learning environments where children are encouraged and inspired to grow. “Now fail again” is not meant as a whip, but rather a comforting “I’m right here with you and it’s ok to try again.” If you teach students to fail, they will. Is that a good thing?