I took a walk today and stopped in a few classrooms just for fun.  As I sat in the back of one classroom, I noticed all of the positive posters displayed on the walls.  

“Today is a great day to learn something new!”
“You never fail until you stop trying.”
“FAIL; First Attempt In Learning”
“Think you can and you can!”
“Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”

You get the idea.  Educators love posting positive phrases to motivate our students.  But, do we really believe these statements?  We all know the phrase: “actions speak louder than words.” So, do our actions match our words?

Every day teachers assign a grade for practice/formatives/teacher checks and record them in the grade book.  We are using the grade as a form of feedback to communicate where the student is at this moment in time.  Totally makes sense. However, we’re assigning a point value to these along with any and all summatives, academic behaviors, projects, homework, etc.  We then take all of those points throw them into a calculator and viola! We have a grade.

But, does that grade reflect these words we try to instill in our students?  Maybe that’s why they struggle to buy into the idea of failing?  They are afraid to fail.  Failure will impact their grade.  Failure isn’t safe.  Then, why do we preach this idea of failure leading to success if we still measure success by a grade that accounts for all of their failures?

They are afraid to fail. Failure will impact their grade. Failure isn’t safe. Click To Tweet

I believe in failure.  How many people learned to ride a bike the first time they tried? My son learned to ride his bike this summer.  It’s a tough skill to learn and to teach.  It took months for him to actually begin riding on his own.  And, my frustration grew every time he fell.  I knew I was giving him good feedback. I told him exactly how to do it.  I modeled it.  We practiced it together.  He tried it on his own.  And, he still fell.  A lot.  But, each failure ultimately allowed him to learn how to ride that bike. When he finally succeeded, I was jumping up and down and celebrating his triumph.  I was so proud of him. He was independently riding a bike.  An “A” in my “mom” gradebook!

But, if I were a teacher in that moment, I’d have to record a letter grade at the end of the semester that represents not only the final result but also his journey to his success.  Along this learning journey, he failed every practice assignment before finally mastering this skill.  He tried a lot but definitely had a negative attitude most days (probably because it was hard, and he was really uncomfortable learning this new skill).  On the days he took a particularly hard fall, he quit completely. One day, he busted open his chin and refused to even try riding for two weeks.  Even though he could ride his bike independently (the ultimate goal), it was three weeks after I determined he should have mastered that skill, and I had to account for all of these things when assigning his final grade. Consequently, I’d have to average all of these assignments-practice, formatives, academic behaviors.  Once I calculated all of this, he performed at about a 69.2%.  Given his negative attitude, his decision to quit midway through the “unit” and his tardiness in mastering the skill, I’d have to assign a D+ as his grade to capture this journey to the final result.  

The bike riding/grading analogy is used a lot.  And, it’s different in the classroom. I recognize that.   It’s a lot harder to individualize, and there is a time constraint. But, the fundamental idea is the same.  We “penalize” students for failing.

We “penalize” students for failing. Click To Tweet

However, let’s think about what our actions, specifically grading actions, communicate to our students.  Failure does not lead to success in most classrooms.  Failure is failure.  We account for these failures and average them in with their successes.  These practices completely contradict the idea of learning from our mistakes.  We need to do more than preach about learning from failure and allow students a safe place to fail and learn.

Next step:  Stop teaching and start failing.

Stop teaching and start failing. Click To Tweet

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