Failure is not an option

When I taught my first class as a graduate assistant at UCLA, one of the students asked whether my Western Civilization section was a “Mickey Mouse” course. What he meant was, “Is this a course with a guaranteed A if I show up and do the minimal work assigned, or will I run the risk that the work I do won’t be good enough for an A?” I said no, it wasn’t a Mickey Mouse course; the history of the Western World was complex and it would take work. I would not guarantee his grade.

He didn’t show up at our next meeting and the enrolled student printout the next week confirmed that he had dropped the class. He couldn’t risk the possibility of failure (which apparently was determined by having a less than 4.0 GPA), and so he missed the opportunity to learn why the reforms of Diocletian changed the economy of the Roman Empire and influenced the rise of monasteries, or how the stirrup made the feudal system possible, or how the academic interests of Charlemagne led to the rise of universities and the very institution he was supposed to be part of.  He chose to fail to get an education rather than fail to get an A grade.

When I taught my first chemistry course online, I was blessed with an enthusiastic bunch of brilliant students who tackled the rigorous textbook and beat it into submission — except for one student we’ll call Joe. Joe lacked the science and math background that would have made the course easier, and he had a learning disability that made reading anything, but especially any kind of formulae, a real trial.  By the middle of the fall semester, it was clear that Joe was in serious trouble. His mother discussed the possibility of dropping the course, but I thought I could teach any willing student anything, so I offered extra help. Joe and I agreed to meet an hour early before the rest of the class and work through the problematic material. When I realized the extent of Joe’s problems, we backed up and started over. He continued to attend the regular online sessions with the rest of the class, but I excused him from keeping up with the homework and quiz assignments while we tried to establish a foundation he could really build on.

At the end of the academic year, the rest of the class had finished the twenty-two chapters of the text. Joe had finished four.

But he really knew those four chapters. He could answer any question and do any problem from them, with more facility and conviction than some of the students who had seemingly breezed through the material months earlier. I reluctantly entered a failing grade on his report, but wrote his parents that I didn’t think the grade reflected Joe’s real accomplishments that year. He had managed to learn some chemistry. What’s more, I’d had a salutary lesson in perseverance.

What I hadn’t realized was that my lesson wasn’t over. Joe didn’t accept his failing grade as the final word. Three years later, out of the blue, I got a letter from Joe’s mother. Her son, fired with the discovery that he could actually learn chemistry given enough time, and the realization that he actually liked chemistry, had gotten a job working part time so that he could pay a chemistry student from the local college to tutor him. He applied the same dogged determination he had shown in our extra morning sessions to his self-study and with the help of his tutor, slogged his way though the rest of our text. Kindly note that no one was giving him a grade for this work. But when he was done with his self-study, he took a community college chemistry course and passed it.

Like so many things, failure is a matter of perception. In his own estimation, Joe hadn’t failed — despite the F on his transcript. Many students would have given up early in the semester — certainly before the last withdrawal date — rather than risk a failing grade. For Joe, the grade was not a locked gate blocking his passage; it was merely measure of how far he still had to go. The educational reality was that he was four chapters further than he had been at the beginning of the year. He took heart from the fact that he was making progress, and kept going.

Our dependence on grades frustrates the educational progress of many otherwise willing students. They take easy courses where they are confident they can do well, rather than risk lowering their grade point average by taking the course that will actually challenge them to grow intellectually. In some cases, teachers even enable the process by giving “consolation” grades rather than risking damaging the fragile self-esteem of students — but everyone, even the students, realizes that they didn’t actually earn the report. We’ve created a schizoid educational system, where even though we know that recorded grades at best inadequately reflect a student’s real accomplishments, and, at worst, distort them, we still base academic advancement and even financial rewards on those abstractions for the sake of convenience. The result is that students pursue grades, rather than education.

Real education requires discipline and serious reflection, but it also requires taking risks, making mistakes, and learning from those mistakes. I would venture that making mistakes and recovering from them is not merely a normal part of learning, but an essential of classical Christian education. We do our students an enormous disservice by making them afraid to fail to “get it right” the first time. We teach them to back down, rather than to buckle down and tackle a new topic with gumption.

Gravity is an uncompromising and unforgiving teacher. Lose your balance, and you will fall.  But every child learns to walk, sooner or later, despite many tumbles along the way. We expect toddlers to fall, and we try to minimize the damage by removing sharp edges and putting down carpets. But we let them fall: how else will they learn to recognize imbalance and practice the motor skills to correct it? We teach them such tumbles should not be a reason to give up learning to walk; we laugh, encourage them to get up, and try again. Ultimately, every healthy child learns to walk, and we really don’t care how many tumbles they took, or how long it took. Parents may report the accomplishment with glee to friends and grandparents, but when was the last time anyone asked how old you were when you learned to walk? The important thing is that you didn’t give up: you chose not to fail, you are walking now, and that gives you the ability to do things you wouldn’t otherwise be able to do as easily.

The phrase “failure is not an option” comes from the movie Apollo 13. The script writers put it in the mouth of Gene Kranz, the NASA Flight Control director at the time. He never actually said those words, but they reflected a firm conviction evidenced by Mission Control that the team would not consider failure among the possible outcomes of their efforts. They could not choose to fail if none of the other options worked — failure was simply not on the list. Of course, failure was still a possibility, but it wasn’t a choice. Their goal was to find a solution that would bring the astronauts home safely, and if none of the proposed options worked, to propose something else that might, and keep working until they succeeded.

Our goal as Christian parents is to educate our children to know God and His creation better, to love all the people He has created, and to serve Him by using the talents He has given them to show His love in that world. To accomplish that, our children need to grow intellectually and spiritually. They need to tackle many subjects, push the limits, and be willing to reveal their ignorance by asking questions. If we are doing an effective job of classical education, we will teach them how to read so closely and carefully that they recognize when things don’t make sense, and be eager to find out why.

Questioning the material won’t be an indication of students’ inability to figure it out for themselves, but a witness to their deep engagement with the content of the text, whether it is making sense of a Latin translation exercise, following a geometrical proof to conclusion, imagining the ramifications of relativity theory, or understanding how the concept of nature influences the behavior of Hawthorne’s characters. When failure is not an option, we understand that students have committed to stay the course, even when they make slow progress by some arbitrary standard, or have to take a detour to pick up necessary skills. Students are freed to make the mistakes they need to make to learn, grow, and ultimately succeed without the prejudice of failed expectations, and we are free to recognize the true achievements in their education, whether or not that is reflected by their current grade level or GPA.

One Response to “Failure is not an option”

  1. Interestingly linked to what you have to say here is an article that I saw recently: it’s about the importance of “grit” — that is, the ability and willingness to engage in sustained, relentless hard work in pursuit of a goal. Recent studies are showing what many of us suspected all along — that there’s not nearly so much that depends on innate talent (if there really is such a thing) as upon tenacity — or, in your terms, taking failure off the table as an option.

    (Warning: contains some mild crude vocabulary):

    http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2011/03/what-is-success-true-grit/

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