Failure is a concept that just doesn’t make sense when it comes to learning
It is common practice in our education system to “fail” students. We do this by giving these kids an F and by telling them that the “failed” our class. This nonsensical practice is widespread. So much so, that few educators have paused to consider the absurdity of the practice or the harshness of the message that it sends.
You Can’t Fail Learning
Let’s start with an obvious truth. Which is that you can’t fail learning. That is not how learning works. Learning isn’t a single event, that we only have one attempt at. It isn’t something that you either succeed at or alternatively fail. Learning is an ongoing process. It is something that occurs throughout our lives.
Some people learn more quickly, while others take more time. The rate of speed that someone learns is no more reflective of their ultimate success than is the rate of speed that a concert pianist learned to play the piano indicative of how good their most recent performance was. The fact is that as long as the job gets done, then in the end, the task has been accomplished. In the end the person who got their quickly and the person who took their time both succeeded.
There are obvious benefits to moving more quickly. But these benefits have nothing to do with the inherent success or failure of the task itself. If two people set out to learn Algebra, and one completes the task in a week, while the other takes a month, all that matters in terms of the task itself is that both succeeded. Moreover, both succeeded to the same degree!
It is true that the person who completed the task more quickly will move on and learn more, and that is great for their over all future. But from the perspective of the Algebra teacher both students presented themselves to the same task, and both achieved it to the same degree of success.
Smart Teachers Don’t Fail Kids, They Teach Kids
Public schools are not the only place where society has provided our children with teachers.
Other teachers might include coaches, dance instructors, piano teachers, religious leaders, scout leaders, and of course family members.
Can you imagine if a coach were to go up to a kid and tell them that because they are missing half their shots they are a failure! Think of it! A child shows up to practice every day, eager to play basketball. They have never played before, and so they have a long way to go until they become proficient. This child naturally miss shot after shot, but they keep trying. Based on the grading scales used by most school systems this child would be considered a failure. I can’t think of a faster way to kill a child’s enthusiasm for something than to tell them that they failed.
A coach is much smarter than to use the nonsensical grading system used by the public school system. The coach tells the child that they are doing great! That it is okay that they are missing shots because that is how you get better, and to keep trying. The coach gives the child tips and instruction, and nourishes their excitement. In so doing, the coach fosters a sense of love for the game, and brings the child towards steady improvement.
The same goes for a piano teacher, a parent, or anyone else truly invested in the long term success of a child.
Despite This Obvious Truth, We Fail Kids In Public Education Anyway
Regardless of the fact that it is impossible for students in a public education setting to fail learning, we judge them as failures anyway. With all the authority of an adult in a position of power, we give these children official documents declaring them to be failures, and we tell them that this record of their status as a failure will be recorded in some terrifying sounding permanent file.
BAM! You are a failure!
It is not surprising that so many kids lose their natural sense of wonder! Why would anyone want to continue learning after someone in authority who is supposedly an expert on learning has declared them to be a hopeless ‘failure’! Little kids who used to ask so many questions, and who were excited to discover every little thing they could about the Universe suddenly go quiet and stop wanting to go to school.
Rather than a source of knowledge to fill their eager minds, these institutions become a self-reinforcing reminder that the child is a loser.
Children Are Too Young To Know That It Is All Nonsense
Children trust the adults in authority. When these adults tell them that they are failures, these children believe it. Even though it is utter nonsense.
What educators should be telling kids is the truth. Whatever that truth may be. In the same way that a coach does.
“You are not a failure, you just need to _____________.”
Honesty is important. So is kindness. It is okay to explain to a child the truth surrounding why their learning may not be progressing. But it must be done with love and compassion.
Honest feedback means explaining that the child may need to spend more time practicing, they may need to stay on task more, or focus more. These things can all be expressed kindly, without resorting to the absurdity of telling a trusting child that they are a failure.
Because kids do not know any better, it is the responsibility of the adults in their lives to explain to them that they can succeed, and to show them the way toward their own success.
We must teach children that frustration is okay. That it is part of the learning process. We must teach them that it is okay to feel their emotions. But that they cannot allow these emotions to hold them back. We must teach them that they are capable of doing hard things. We must help them to see a pattern of success in their lives. To recognize that each time they feel frustrated, they can push through these emotions, and ultimately gain the victory.
When a child feels frustrated, what purpose could it possibly serve to tell them that they have failed?
This is the great and unforgivable sin of public education.
This Terrible Fallacy Is Institutionalized
To be fair to the teachers, it isn’t their fault. The problem is one that is institutionalized. Teachers are required to input scores into computer systems that are run by local school districts. These scores enter into a grading system that is usually mandated by district policy. The teachers themselves could lose their jobs, or even be brought up on legal charges for “grade inflation” if they do not follow these policies.
Why Mr. Bertoch Teaches With Mastery Badges
The answer is a system that rewards learning, while giving positive and encouraging feedback, that never mislabels a child as a failure. Mr. Bertoch has high expectations for his students. I expect them to learn. I expect them to work hard. I expect them to succeed. Because I know that they can do hard things. I know that they are capable of mastering the content that I am teaching them.
To help them in their journey we work together on Mastery Badges. I don’t give my students meaningless grades. I don’t divide them between those who are successes and those who are failures.
Instead we work through the natural progression of learning together. With predefined goals, and reachable destinations. If a child reaches their destination quickly that is wonderful. If they take more time, that is also wonderful! What I care about is learning! If you are moving forward then you are learning, and that is worth celebration.
As we work together, students will be given a series of Mastery Badge Packets. These Mastery Badge Packets includes everything your child needs to pass off a Mastery Badge, and are designed to take around two weeks to complete. Activities in each of this packets include things like hands on labs, live video conferences, prerecorded video instruction, literacy assignments, and so forth.
The goal of each mastery badge is to learn to replicate the knowledge and skills that the mastery badge covers. At the end of each badge, students will have the opportunity to pass it off. If they do, then they will be awarded the badge. If they don’t, that is okay. Mr. Bertoch will give them honest but supportive feedback, explaining what they still need to do in order to complete the badge. After which they will be able to try again… and again… until they complete it.
This is how learning works!
As far as Mr. Bertoch is concerned, the student who learns the cell theory in three weeks, and who can demonstrate their knowledge by making a high quality model of an animal cell is just as successful as the student who does the exact same thing in four days.