January 2011
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Failure IS an option

“If I’ve learned anything about life it’s this: a knee without scars is evidence of a life unlived.” –Big Poppa E, “The Wisdom of Scars”

Today, like every day at school, I opened Internet explorer. Like every day, the Hickman website came up, and I began to sift through it for noteworthy items. The first thing that grabbed my eye was a large banner promoting an event called “Failure is NOT An Option.”

Respectfully, I would emphatically disagree. Failure is absolutely an option.

If we never fail, how can we learn? How can we possibly grow? In the 18 years I’ve been given on this earth, I’ve learned a whole lot, though when compared to all the knowledge out there, it’s admittedly not much.

The lessons I’ve learned, the ones I’ve taken to heart: they’ve been where I miserably failed, where I painfully screwed up. I never really learned that I needed to treasure my relationships with my family and my friends until, one day, I had the last conversation I’d ever have with my grandpa. I didn’t know at the time, and I’m ashamed to admit I wasn’t paying very much attention at all. The next day, my grandpa passed away, and that last phone call became something I’ll remember and regret for the rest of my life. But it taught me in a way nothing else could to treasure my phone calls and my time with my loved ones.

Likewise, I entered this school year quite (over)confident in my ability to succeed without much work in AP Calculus. It took a terrible grade on a test to teach me that I needed to put in time studying and working problems to succeed.

Failure must be an option. To invoke a cliché, if you help a butterfly struggle out of its cocoon, its wings will be weak, and it may never fly.

I understand the sentiment behind saying failure is not an option—that success is the only choice. But I’m concerned that this idea will lead to a malformed, weak, and underdeveloped generation of students who won’t know how to cope with failure, or what to do to succeed.

To quote Big Poppa E again, “Mistakes are the only thing that’s ever taught me anything.”

If you want to help lessen the achievement gap, then let failure be an option. Let students fail. Let them struggle. Then let them learn. And watch them grow.

By John Brooks

6 comments to Failure IS an option

  • Christopher Robin

    I agree entirely that it is life’s pitfalls that teach us more than easy successes ever could, and I think it is excellent that someone finally pointed out that not everyone succeeds all the time. Children are taught that they can be anything they want, all they have to do is apply themselves and they can become a doctor-ballerina-lawyer in space, but the fact of the matter is that not everyone gets to where they want to be; whether that’s because of academic failings or an outside event that derails even the most carefully drawn-out life plans, not everyone achieves. And its the people brought up being told that they can do anything who meet minor failures and completely lose faith in their own abilities. You can’t just have failures to learn from them, you have to be able to overcome them.

  • Nick

    The problem is that the teachers who believe in failure, who have high expectations, are few in number. What this creates is a few classes that are abnormally difficult compared to the rest of a student’s scheduele.

    For instance, if two teachers teach the same class, but one believes in making the class rigourous, and the other gives students a workload comparable with the majority of the other classes, then the student in the hard class will have to work much harder to get the same grade as another student. The rigourous class may be more fufilling to the student, but the colleges won’t understand how hard you worked, they’ll just see that the student who had the easier teacher got the better grade.

    If teachers were united on this opinion, and every class was of a reasonable difficulty, it would be one thing, but when only a few teachers have rigourous classes, they become the subject of every student’s hatred for their seemingly unjust workload.

  • Samantha

    I see what Nick is getting at, but at the end of the day colleges can’t tell the difference between the easy teacher and the hard one. They’re only looking at the effort students put forth in the classes. So if a student gets an A in the rigorous class, that doesn’t mean it was exactly easy, and did nothing to deserve the grade;as well as if a student in the hard class gets an A, that doesn’t mean that they worked 10x harder than the student in the easy class.

    The quote “Supposing you have tried and failed again and again. You may have a fresh start any moment you choose, for this thing we call “failure” is not the falling down, but the staying down,” by Mary Pickford pretty much sums up what its like to fail as a teenager. Every teen fails, and those people that don’t fail are either gods or just have no life. Failure leads to sucsess.

    I’d wish that more people would take their failures as a learning experience rather than cry and give up. If everyone just gave up we would not have all the great technologies that we have today.

    I definately applaud you John, you definitly give a lot of good points that many people miss.

  • Christopher Robin

    Good point, but if you notice, this article was not about different teachers expectations creating discrepancies between the same classes. It’s about each person’s individual failures, and if a college doesn’t like what they saw because you had a tougher teacher, then that is YOUR failure to rise to that particular teacher’s expectations.

  • Adam

    While i agree that failure is a better motivator than success at times, i don’t think that it can be uniformally used across the school. Good students will, without a doubt, respond positively to failure. After all, that is what makes a good student, a good student. However, our more troubled students will give up, and may NEED those helping hands so they don’t just drop out.

    The real issue is, similar to Nick’s point, teachers’ ability to recognize which philosophy their particular students need.

  • Max Rockatansky

    Failure should *NEVER* be an ‘ok’ option for children to take. I don’t care if it’s learning from mistakes or whatever it is being cited as a reason for any good, the ability to avoid mistakes should be something known and determined by a students’ common sense; something that’s been removed in part, thanks to the baby-bottle that’s being stuck in our childrens mouths by an ever-growing state of hand-holding and eternal baby-steps. If you asked a surgeon if “failure is an option” then what would he say? If we continue to teach kids that failures are something that can be tolerated, then that’s just what they will end up.

    A kids goal in school should be to AVOID FAILURE. Not embrace it when it happens, and MOST CERTAINLY NOT aspire to it. There’s a reason the United States isn’t in the top 20′s in terms of education anymore, and all of the smart kids have parents that obviously get on them about grades so much that it drives them crazy. Their parents are right, and so are their methods, they don’t allow failure.

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