Our Schools Need More Failure

Our students just filled up our classrooms for the first time last week and pretty soon the I'll be compelled to assign a letter grade to each of them on a progress report.
09/09/2011 05:31 pm ET Updated Nov 09, 2011

So our students just filled up our classrooms for the first time last week and pretty soon the I'll be compelled to assign a letter grade to each of them on a progress report -- and entering those grade demarcations will remind me that our education system reflects little knowledge of how humans learn.

Our options are to record, for each student the letters A, B, C, or D or the word -- in all caps -- FAIL. Some schools and districts might not spell it out -- just the capital f, but everyone knows what it stands for.


Or does it?

And should it?

In a 1983 essay, playwright Samuel Beckett made a statement, a suggestion really, that ought to be posted in every school in our country: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."

Teachers know how important that first sentence is. Ever tried? For my most successful students -- those who will earn the most impressive college opportunities -- the answer is yes, always or almost always. Ever failed? Yes, they have -- more than the other students.

Do those failures demoralize or defeat them? Not if I'm doing my job -- and probably in some cases regardless of the quality of their teacher.

They just keep trying again. Failing better. Like every great scientist, innovator, technician, entrepreneur, humanitarian, artist. Like anyone who has ever mastered anything. Fail better to success.

So what about the rest of our students?

Are we providing them the opportunities and encouragement for them to fail better?

Are we even trying?

The best teachers I have known never stop trying -- even if a student appears to have stopped caring.

The best teachers I know are not afraid to fail -- and in the current climate of test-driven-rigidity, taking risks to reach all of our students in a meaningful way is often a subversive act.

The best teachers are not afraid to recognize when they have failed -- with a lesson or a part of a lesson or in some attempt to reach a particular student. Some students might, for the moment, be beyond reaching -- often for reasons unrelated to school -- but the really good teachers keep trying anyway because there is never certainty with such things.

Most of the best teachers I've known have failed better for years until the failures become quite rare. Still, they understand that what worked in the past, even last year, may not be the thing that works with this year's students.

The best teachers are idealistic. The best teachers are imaginative.

They have to be idealistic and imaginative to work within an education system that tends to be cynical, that is built to deliver education with a political sledge hammer. I probably don't have to mention that politicians are not inclined to admit failure so they are far less likely to fail better toward anything resembling success.

When I complain to my colleagues or superiors about the misnomer of the FAIL grade, the usually smile with a polite nod and then move on to more urgent matters, like whether we should give students the state high school exit exam on a Monday or a Tuesday. I understand. It does seem a little petty of me to be so concerned about a word and its meaning when so many catastrophes are swirling around our school and the lives of our students.

Just last night a student in one of my classes had to beat himself up -- punch himself repeatedly in the face -- in order to convince his mother to move him out of his neighborhood before he was caught up in a violent retaliation against his criminal uncle. He was one of my best students but he didn't like being wrong and one of the last things he expressed to me was a complaint about the way I was teaching: "You send us home to interpret these poems, then after we do all that work you show us everything we missed and make us feel stupid."

I started to tell him -- and the rest of the class -- that he wasn't stupid. That no one in the room fit that description. I was just more experienced at reading poetry and had managed to learn something from the accumulation of small failures doing so. But instead I turned off the lights and showed them a two-minute video montage of early human attempts at flying, those ridiculous-looking wing-flapping, engine-sputtering, nose-diving failures. Then I led them outside to a stairwell landing from which we could see the sky over South Los Angeles and watch the steady stream of modern aircraft descending toward LAX. Fail better, I almost told them, almost pointing toward one of the jets.

But I didn't have to say anything.