Dear Trumansburg Central School District:
Please, allow my daughter to fail. Allow my son to fail, too. He might need it even more. In fact, while we're at it, I'd like all of the children in our district to be allowed to fail.
What? Are you crazy?
I had an interesting chat with my daughter the other day, and it led to an insight for me. She was expressing frustration that on every project and paper and assignment, her teachers are generally walking her (and her classmates) through every step. By her description, she gets the assignment, assesses it, and then thinks, "Okay, I know how to do this." And then, as the teacher walks everyone through what's needed, she starts to get frustrated and deflated. What good does it do her to know how to do an assignment on her own when she won't be allowed to exercise her knowledge? What good does it do her to be able to work independently if she's never allowed to work independently?
She's terrified that she'll get to college and not be able to write an essay on her own, because she feels like she's never been given the chance to try it in high school. That, my friends, is a problem.
As I thought about it a bit, I realized that we're in the midst of a cultural trend that is trying to eliminate the possibility of failure across the board. What else could be implied by the name "No Child Left Behind"? Education isn't the only place this is happening, but I think it's where it's the most noticeable. By trying to ensure that nobody falls behind, that nobody fails, we are diluting the meaning of success.
When I started my college career, my intended major was computer science. Why? Well, I'd done a lot with computers, I was comfortable with them. I'd done programming. I was "the computer guy." Everyone knew that, and nobody questioned it, least of all, me. At the time, comp sci was really the only major that seemed to fit, and I didn't even look around for anything else. My first year went pretty smoothly, but in the fall semester of my second year, I failed linear algebra.
That made me stop and think.
I knew I could re-take it, and that if I dug in and worked more at it (I'll full well admit that my attention was not focused on it as it should have been) I could have passed the course and continued on down the road to being a computer scientist.
Except that I didn't want to. I had no desire to re-take that class. The math wasn't interesting to me, and I was losing interest in comp sci.
I ended up changing majors to Science and Technology Studies, an interdisciplinary humanities major focusing on the history, philosophy, and sociology of science and technology. It was interesting, I could recycle some of my existing coursework towards the major and finish it on time. I also got a job doing computer support in a departmental IT shop so I could start building a resume. That was when I started to learn the difference between IT work (which I like) and computer science (which I don't). In the end, that led me down the road of what has thus far been a successful, interesting, and dynamic career in IT.
What would have happened to me if I had not been allowed to fail? I wonder. I might have bailed out of comp sci anyway. I'm not sure. But I do know that getting that 'F' was a turning point for me, and I have no regrets about the path I found in part as a result of it.
I also know that these days, I'm a lot more attracted to a challenge that has a certain amount of risk than something I know I can do. If it's something that I know how to do, and I have no doubts that I can do it, it's a lot less engaging.
Now let me go back to my daughter's experience in school, where this all started. We have a problem with students not being engaged in their schooling. They feel like what they're doing isn't relevant to real life and won't help them when they get out of school. My daughter it itching to be done with high school and to move on to college, and at the same time is afraid that she's not prepared for it. The classes that she's required to sit through are neither preparing her for the next stage, nor letting her prepare herself. No wonder she's frustrated.
We need to stop walking kids through the same rote exercises. We need to let the step out on their own, with real risk of failure, while the stakes are still low enough that they can recover gracefully and move on to success. Will some fall behind? Yes. Will some go on much faster and farther? Yes. Will some drop out completely? Probably, but that happens now anyway. Will most students be more engaged and challenged? I think so.
It's time to start letting people fail again, so that they can start to succeed.