A Plea to Parents: Let Your Students Fail

Being a failure is what results from a lack of learning from experiencing failure, and there is nothing wrong with experiencing failure as long as there is learning involved.

by Sarah Levy

As a teacher, I hate it when students fail a quiz. I hate it because it means they didn’t learn the material, and maybe I didn’t teach it clearly enough for them. I hate it because those students will probably be disappointed when they their quiz grades, and I am the one bringing them that upsetting information. Most of all, however, I hate it because I will get those parent emails.

The other teachers out there know those emails. They are the tersely written notes from parents making excuses for their children … it was his Bar Mitzvah weekend … we had family in town … he didn’t have access to the notes online … she didn’t feel that you taught the material clearly enough … it just wasn’t her fault. These parents intervene on behalf of their children to make excuses, to ask for a retake, to save their children from actually experiencing failure.

This issue is especially relevant to the Jewish Day School world where parents make the conscious decision to spend large sums of money to give their students a meaningful, quality experience. Unfortunately, too many parents think that “meaningful and quality” must be synonymous with “happy and free from failure,” and this train of thought is detrimental to the children they are trying to protect.

The July/August issue of The Atlantic included a piece called “How to Land your Kid in Therapy” by Lori Gottlieb. The tagline which reads “Why the obsession with our kids’ happiness may be dooming them to unhappy adulthoods” pretty much sums up the entire article. In it, Gottlieb discusses her experiences both as a new parent trying to be a “good mother” and as a therapist trying to make sense of her patients who were “just not happy.” Gottlieb describes patients who would speak of their parents as loving and caring and supportive, leading to a conclusion that perhaps these parents were doing too much. These parents, like those who send me those emails, in their attempt to be “good” parents went to extreme measures to prevent their children from experiencing any unhappiness and any sense of failure to the extent that when they reached adulthood and the associated independence, they did not know how to handle normal struggles and normal feelings. They did not know how to build their own self-esteem, and they did not know how to recover from failure in the real world, when it really mattered.

School, however, is the perfect time to experience failure, to recover from failure, and to learn from failure. Tony Wagner, Innovation Education Fellow at the Technology and Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard, in his keynote to participants of North American Jewish Day School 2013 also discussed the importance of experiencing failure in the learning process. Trial and error, he argued, inevitably involves error. How can we learn from our mistakes if we are never in a position to make a mistake? He brought in real world examples from companies who follow this philosophy and post signs like “Fail early and fail often” and “If you haven’t failed, you haven’t tried” around the building. There is no innovation, Wagner says, without trial and error, and there cannot be trial and error if students are afraid of error.

Teacher Edward Burger notes a similar problem and offers a suggestion in his August 2012 piece, “Essay on the Importance of Teaching Failure.” He states, “Individuals need to embrace the realization that taking risks and failing are often the essential moves necessary to bring clarity, understanding, and innovation.” Burger has actually included a “failure” grade into his students’ grades as a way to encourage students to take risks. He even asks students to intentionally fail as a way for them to get over their fear of failure and recognize the value of learning from the experience.

Failure and struggle help students to build self-confidence and a strong work ethic, two qualities that can lead to success both inside and outside of school, two qualities that our students are seriously lacking, especially when compared to students internationally.

In the chapter entitled “Rice Paddies and Math Tests” in his book Outliers: A Story of Success, Malcom Galdwell connects the rice paddy culture of South China to academic potential and achievement. Growing rice is meaningful (involving a clear relationship between effort and reward), complex (basically running a small business), and autonomous (giving independence and responsibility to the famers). It teaches perseverance. It teaches the value of hard work, and it teaches about personal responsibility. Gladwell connects this to the TIMSS test (an international test designed to compare the achievement of one country to another). Prior to the actual questions of the test, there are about 120 background questions in order for the test to gain information about the test taker. Not all students complete all of the questions, though, with the test takers from each question generally answering a different number of the preliminary questions. Interestingly, however, when comparing the rankings of the number of preliminary questions answered to the actual math rankings of the test, they are exactly the same. Students who have the perseverance to answer more preliminary questions also are the students who score better on the test itself. Additionally, Asian students last roughly 40% longer than American students before giving up when faced with difficult puzzles, adding to their dominance in the academic field. Gladwell connects this success to the culture that has been created by growing rice. Growing rice is hard work, but those who stick with it are rewarded through valuable, transferable skills. Those who fail see the direct consequences through lack of food and lack of income, and they work to improve so that they will not fail again; they do not have their parents send an email, excusing them.

As a teacher, I can assure all parents that I do not want their children to be failures, but there is a difference between being a failure and experiencing failure. Being a failure is what results from a lack of learning from experiencing failure, and there is nothing wrong with experiencing failure as long as there is learning involved.

According to our tradition, the mashiach will come from the line of King David. Is it because David was perfect and never failed? Hardly! Among the mistakes that David made, he attempted to bring the Ark into Jerusalem improperly and sinned with Bat Sheva. In each situation, he was severely punished for his actions. What differentiates David from some of the other leaders in our tradition and makes David worthy of the line of the mashiach, however, is that he acknowledged his errors, repented, and learned. David certainly experienced failure, but I don’t think there is anyone who would dare call him a failure.

Sarah Levy is an educator and is also earning a doctorate in education.