A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Failure by any other name...

I love to read the news; in fact, I'm a news junkie. Friends of mine know this and send me little snippets they think I'll like. So I'm sure many of you have seen this one lately (July 28, 2005).

According to the Guardian newspaper, it seems a retired teacher in the Professional Association of Teachers in the U.K. recently put forward a motion that would "delete the word 'failure' from the education vocabulary and replace it with the concept of 'deferred success.'"

Said Liz Beattie, sponsor of the resolution: "I feel very strongly about this. For most of my teaching career I have been upset by seeing some children give up on themselves. If dropping the word 'fail' from our educational vocabulary could help, isn't it worth a try?"

Let's try this out, shall we, and see if it works:

The Boston Red Sox baseball team's delayed success in the World Series endured for eighty-eight years and was attributed to the "Curse of the Bambino."

What we have here is... delayed success to communicate!

If only we could fix everything by just making words go away... no, wait! Isn't decreasing one's vocabulary a BAD thing for educators to do?

But then again, what a fabulously Orwellian concept, one that Winston Smith's superiors in the Ministry of Truth would love! If we have no word for failure, then it won't occur! Right?


Here's the problem. No matter what we as teachers try, some students are going to fail. No matter how we try to paper over the lack of attainment of skills or knowledge, most of the students know they've failed, too. Grown up people-- teachers, coaches, principals, parents-- who try to duck the pronouncement at the moment of truth are doing the kids no favors. First of all, the kids know you're not being honest with them, and secondly, deep in their hearts, they don't appreciate it, either. Once you start down the dark path of euphemisms, kids know they can't trust you to give an honest assessment.

And that's what grades are or should be-- an assessment. Not a lifetime sentence. Not an identity. Unless, of course, you keep excusing away the failures as they pile up. What about the kid who buys your load of tripe, and thinks that nothing is wrong? Eventually, the lesson, the unit, the semester, the school year will end. Eventually, the students will expect to be able to go to the next lesson, the next unit, the next semester, the next grade, or eventually out in the world and do something with the knowledge they are supposed to have attained. Will they be able to do it?

Think of it, to twist the words of Pink Floyd, as a wall. Together, teachers and students are trying to build a wall of skills, knowledge, and facts that is going to have to support students' endeavors and aspirations after graduation. Honest assessments lead to the chance to correct flaws and mistakes before they become crippling weaknesses in that wall, before they pile atop each other. Students who face and recognize their failures get a chance to mend their failures. But what happens if students are allowed to stumble blithely on? Riddled with gaps and holes and in some cases yawning chasms where knowledge and skills should be, will their education collapse under the weight of ignorance at the first challenge?

In our frenzied quest to enhance "self-esteem," we are teaching our kids that it is okay not to do your best; it's okay not to get it right. We are taking away that inner sense of disappointment that encourages us to get it right the next time, and so there is no "next time." What kind of education are we giving our students if they are not held accountable for ever learning material that they have failed to attain previously?

By excusing or obviating failure, we are saying that we don't believe in our students. We are saying that we don't believe them CAPABLE of learning. We are saying we don't believe they can do better. And no matter how much people like Ms. Beatty think they are demonstrating their advocacy for children, by wanting to protect them from sometimes harsh truths, really all they are doing is ensuring that the failures will continue.

Oh, by the way, the motion to do away with the word "failure" itself-- failed to pass! Let's hope that this notion doesn't experience any "delayed success" any time soon.

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