Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Failure is not an option

I created this blog to provide practical examples of things that teachers can do inside of their classrooms, and wanted to try to avoid posts that were just my opinions on general theory of teaching.  So much for that.  I've been kicking this idea around in my head over the last couple weeks and I feel it's just too important not to share.

"We need to let kids fail so that they can learn important lessons about working hard and resilience.  People are going to have failures in life and they need to prepare for that."  I hear ideas like this a lot throughout blogs, twitter, in professional development sessions and within my school.  Whenever I hear it, I immediately agree.  It makes a lot of sense, and I feel like nowadays kids are given things too easily and protected from setbacks and failure too much.

However, in math especially it simply can't be an option to let kids fail.  When I say "failing" I mean failing a test, or even just failing on an important concept within a test.  I'm not by any means suggesting giving students grades they don't deserve, what I am suggesting is forcing students to deserve good grades in math.  Now this is easier for me because I have fewer students than most teachers, but I think the concept in general still applies to math courses across the board and we can build our classes in a way that helps students to succeed without sweeping problems under the rug.

So why am I presenting such conflicting statements?  I agree that kids should be able to fail, but I don't "let" them fail in my class.  The reason is because of how math is different than other subjects.  Math always builds.  That's not to say there's no building in other courses, but it's more gradual, more encapsulated and there's more chance to catch up.

In math courses, students need much of what they learn to be able to succeed in future math(and science) classes.  Let's say, for instance, a kid fails my test on solving equations in algebra 1 and it's totally his fault.  He didn't pay attention in class, didn't do his homework, didn't study and didn't ask for help.  Now if you ignore what the topic is and just look at what he did, does he deserve to fail? Sure.  Here's where the problem sets in though.  If I just let it go here, I'm not just letting him fail.  I'm setting him up for failure.  Unless this kid is explicitly taught how to solve equations somewhere else(and he very likely won't be), then I'm setting him up for failure in every following high school and college math class as well as Chemistry and Physics.  Am I taking too much responsibility here?  I don't think so.  It's my job to teach him the concepts of Algebra 1, and his future teachers will expect that he knows it if he passes the course.  If I don't intervene it's not as simple as letting him learn his lesson, it's dooming him to future failure as well.

Therefore, it is essential that in math courses students have option to (or better yet, they must) improve upon past grades for topics that they didn't master.  Dan seems to have a pretty good system which I'll get around to implementing at some point, but for now I just have mandatory retests in some cases and optional retests for anything.  I'll also find ways to revisit topics that students generally understood but didn't master (like warm up activities where they have to get every question perfect for some sort of motivator).

Are there topics in math that are less important that I'll let go if a student doesn't totally understand them?  Sure.  In general though, I get freedom over my curriculum so there aren't a whole ton of topics that aren't important later. There certainly aren't enough side topics for a student to be able to fail my class despite mastering the important stuff.

So how are my students going to be taught that important lesson on failure? I say, let their history teacher do it.   Seriously.  Not necessarily history, but anywhere where the loss of one unit isn't possibly the loss of that entire subject.  Living in a world where people advertise if not brag about how bad they are at math when I tell them my profession just solidifies my feelings on this topic.  Students that miss out on really learning how to solve an equation, or other core building topics will grow up to be those people;  There are already too many of them in the world, and I refuse to take part in creating more.

What are your thoughts?


  1. >what I am suggesting is forcing students to deserve good grades in math.

    We can't force. It doesn't work. The dilemma of schooling is just this.

    It sounds like you plan to encourage with every means available. But we won't get 100% success until the kids are choosing it.

  2. What if they never deserve good grades?

    This year I started requiring a minimum score in every skill. A 97% average with a 0/5 in one skill would be a "No Pass" grade. They can't go on to Precalc if they can't solve a linear equation. The problem of next year isn't quite solved, though - do they come back to repeat my class even though they can do every skill but one? All but one week of our class?

    A really hard question.

  3. I agree; in my math classes I can't force a student to retake a failed quiz, but I can and do *strongly encourage* them to retake until they succeed.

    What I think of when I hear about failure being "an important lesson" is not a failing grade, but failure to accomplish something, accompanied by learning from your mistakes. For example, in my engineering class I expect some students' original toothpick&gumdrop towers to fail to hold the weight of a baseball, which is their purpose. However, this failure should teach them something about the strength of structures (e.g. a triangle is stronger than a square, or they might need to reinforce with double toothpicks in some places).

    Trying something, failing, and then analyzing your mistake, is (I would go so far as to say) the only way to learn something completely new. It is when results run counter to your intuitions (i.e . failure) that you sit up and take notice and learn.

    Trying something, failing, and not learning from your mistakes, on the other hand, is useless.

  4. Sue: You're right. "Force" is not the perfect word. I feel like at this point though I have tools(and few enough students) that encouragement and just not overtly giving them an option to get out of a retake works in the vast majority of cases. "You are taking the retest Wednesday and reviewing with me tomorrow" vs "If you're taking a retest it must be done be Tuesday" As students get closer to graduating, I move from the former to the latter. (I do mention with a smile on my face that if they fail my class senior year I will write a letter to the college they've chosen about it. They don't know if I'm joking when I say that. Neither do I.)

    Riley: Well, different skills have a different level of importance and some are easier than others to quickly learn in later classes. In general though, I wouldn't suspect that would happen. I feel like with one or even a few skills I could reteach and retest any student pretty quickly to get them to proficiency. It's probably easier in my school to get kids in though as we have a study period and the ability to give a mandatory after school study hall when necessary.

    Nick: Well said. I very much agree with everything you're saying and I stress that a lot with my student. I was maybe a little vague, however, and I'm speaking more towards the "they've made their bed, let them lay in it" sort of idea.

  5. Failure is an important part of learning - even in math. My problem is with students who, in elementary school, were taught that the most important thing about math is getting the right answer. They come into my classes (I have taught from Algebra 1 on up to Calculus) assuming that it's all about the right answer, and are unwilling or incapable of moving forward when they can't get the right answer immediately. They shut down and wait for the teacher to tell them what to do next.

    I agree that we don't want our students to leave us unprepared for the next class and, in general, each subsequent class builds on the previous ones. However, our students have to experience failure and mistakes in the process of learning, or they shut down once it happens (read Mindset by Carol Dweck).

    Of course, I will also say that most of our courses in the US are bloated with concepts and skills we insist are essential when they really are not. But that's a topic for another time.

  6. funny how this topic seems to be hot right now in the blogsphere.

    I gotta say that I respectfully disagree. Not only can we "not let them fail" (the whole leading a horse to water thing), but what if every subject had the same mentality? Then these kids would never fail and would never build coping strategies to deal and overcome failing. At my school, we have seen this a lot lately. The middle schools are doing a horrible job of failing kids, unless it is an extreme case. The amount of extra credit offered to get an A is unbelievable as well.

    Kids will make mistakes, as do adults. I replace up to 3 chapter tests with a benchmark, practice final and regular final. This allows the students to still try to understand the material even if they failed it the first time around. And it also gives them a finite number of times to reach their goal.

  7. Math, Physics and Chemistry are all pretty challenging subjects that are related with one another. I definitely agree with you that failing one of them impacts the others. As a Math teacher though, you don't have to do the intervention all alone. If the learning problem lies in the attitude of the student towards his or her overall academe, then you could only do so much about it. If you really don't want failure to be an option in your class, perhaps you could cooperate with the parents so they could take part in the intervention. Daniele @ C2Educate.com