On Success and Failure


Backstory: I am writing this reflection after finding it difficult to convince my students to help one another learn.  I was left to wonder why they found helping each not only a foreign expectation, but also a threat to their own learning.


There is a silent stress found within the classroom.  It is the constant threat of losing: Losing your rank in the classroom, losing dignity, losing face, or, worst of all, suffering humiliating failure.  There is a set curriculum, a set pace, and a set level of expectation that takes no heed to the learner.  Measure up or fail – we must move on from this topic lest we should fall behind.


These are the unspoken truths of the classrooms in our school system.  And these are the truths that I believe must change.


John Holt, who was himself a school teacher before founding the ‘un-school’ movement, wrote that children are very adept learners and teachers when the threat of failure is removed from their classrooms.  However, as long as schools exist with a methodology of sorting the ‘strong’ from the ‘weak’ there is no chance for children to share their knowledge with each other.  Those who struggle will struggle more due to the increased stress of knowing that they’re falling behind and in danger of a ‘C, D, or F’. Those who are quick studies will not take the time to help others as they’re too busy ensuring their own continued progress and gains.  This is a shame as we’ve all heard the common adage that we remember 95% of what we ourselves teach.


Holt also wrote about the three most powerful metaphors of schooling today in ‘How Teachers Fail‘ (as true today as 32 years ago).  Within that piece Holt points to the studied relationship between stress and learning disabilities (less stress = less difficulties in learning).  If the threat of failure was removed from school would children be better able to succeed?


We believe that the answer to the above question is a resounding ‘yes’.  This is why we have removed ‘C’, ‘D’, and ‘F’ marks from our living report card.  It is simply unacceptable, in our minds, for a student not to master a skill set.  To allow such a thing to happen would be as much if not more a failure of the teacher and the school than the student.


The contrary view is that the world is already to full of millennials and Generation Z students who have never experienced failure.  After all, the world is a difficult place and failure is a very real reality.  This argument misses the truth – failure is part of success.  Failure is inherent in any true success or the challenge was not challenging enough.  As our students at Headwaters Academy move through projects they will find that their first solution, their second solution, and sometimes their whole approach does not work.  What separates our students and our school is that we, as teachers and students, will not simply walk away from the experience and label it a failure.  When we fail the first time, we get back up and try again and we keep repeating the try, fail, try again loop until it ends in success.  The real issue is that too many people today (millennial and otherwise) were given the false sense that you either ‘pass’ or you ‘fail’, and that when one fails it is beyond one’s ability to achieve success.  This, we believe, is one of the primary flaws in the current educational system.


Headwaters Academy stands behind this promise – all students can succeed, and thus all students will succeed.  Success might not come easy – as one of my childhood mentors always said “the only place you’ll find success before work is in the dictionary”.  I would only add that hard work is to be celebrated.