Monday, November 30, 2009

Failure must be an option

As writers we are constantly rejected, even if we sign with agents, have our books published, and sell thousands of copies. In publishing, rejection slips are inevitable. Let's face it, even NY Times Best Selling Authors sill get rejections.

As writers, for the most part, we deal with it. We don't become depressed, crawl into a hole, or bury our head in the sand. We query the next agent, write the next book, and work on our craft. We have to, if we are committed to the craft of writing.

What brought failure to my attention is that I recently noticed (but it's likely been going on for a while) a disturbing trend among supposedly progressive schools. These schools are no longer testing and grading their students. The teacher writes a report at the end of the year discussing how well the student did. Excuse me? The students don't get an ongoing chance to fail?

Failure is good. Failure tells you where you suck. Failure tells you where you need to focus your efforts. Failure can provide the motivation to drive you to succeed. Without failure, you have no way of knowing whether what you've done is good or bad, and no motivation to fix what's wrong. You don't even know what to fix.

The problem that I foresee, is what happens when these students go out to face the real world. I can't imagine how they will feel when reality smacks them in the face. They are likely not equipped to handle it. They probably haven't developed the emotional armor (thick skin) needed to get through it. The end result is that the student may end up being more of an emotional wreck than if they were allowed to fail early in life, and learn how to deal with it.

I'm no sociologist, but I can't imagine this would be a good program to train our next generation of writers. It's likely that when they find out how hard publishing really is, they won't know how to deal with it, and simply give up.

What do you think? Should kids be taught to experience and learn to deal with failure?


  1. I'm not a sociologist either, but as a psychologist, with a specialty in children and adolescents, I have to say that you're right on the mark. Failure, or its possibility, builds ego ego strength. That's the stuff that we use to pick ourselves up when things don't go the way we want or the way we think they should.

    I sure hope that school, and others like it, change that policy. Otherwise, the furture, for generations, is going to be in a bad way.

  2. I agree with you. It's just like the trend to give ribbons to the 32nd and 33rd place finishers in the track events. They are probably kissing up to the parents and not considering the kids at all.

  3. Here's the poop: There is a lot of merit, and I mean a lot, when you teach kids to do self-learning. Their ability to absorb and process information into real-world scenarios start approaching the spooky level.

    In this environment, the tradition "grade" is meaningless as the actual evaluation of the knowledge or skill picked up has to do with a tangible piece of life. For example, "new math" was supposed to teach approaches to where, if a student was presented a math problem out of their immediate expertise, they would be able to examine the problem from an low-level architecture point of view and learn how to solve it, on their own.

    Sounds good? Sure, in theory. In practice, however, the traditional school is ill-suited for this type of teaching. Class size, class structure and age parity stand in the way of this type of learning environment.

    What you frequently encounter is self-learning techniques used as an excuse. It is difficult and time-consuming to grade a student properly. So they don't, because the money and the will is not there. This is where failure comes into play. Failure can mean the student failed, but it also means the parent or teacher or school administration or teacher's union also failed. Therefore, it's very convenient to remove failure and call it "New Math" or whatever.

    It's a sad state of affairs. I've met some great teachers, and our very own Alex sounds like the English Teacher from Heaven. But if we took Our Alex(TM) and added ten more students to each of her classes, I can guarantee students are going to suffer. And the likely response is to remove the failing grade to obscure the real problem of class size.

    In the end, children not given the opportunity to fail are not given the opportunity to succeed.

    If you're not making mistakes, you're not learning anything.

  4. Anthony, you are right on, and I sure wish I had a teacher like Our Alex(TM) when I was taking English. Mine pretty much turned me off from reading until I graduated from college.


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