www.affairesuniversitaires.ca / janvier 2014 / 21
the key reason why a quarter of students were unlikely to graduate was
because of a high failure rate in some Grade 9 and 10 courses. Low levels
of achievement in hands-on, “applied level” courses in those grades (
compared with the more “academic” level) were seen as a deterrent to student
motivation, setting students up for more of the same as they attempted to
progress through their high school program.
As a result, school system officials introduced policies and programs
that put an emphasis on giving students multiple chances to complete
work towards their credits, as well as flexibility in how they demonstrated their skills and knowledge. This replaced automatically failing them
outright. Nevertheless, some teachers complained, and continue to do so,
that programs such as “credit rescue,” an intervention to keep students
from failing a course, and “credit recovery,” which allows students to redo
only those parts of a course they’d failed, awarded credits to students who
had not earned them.
Alan Wright, vice-provost, teaching and learning at the University of
Windsor, says that failure can be useful if there is room for it to happen
and for students to recover from it. At the university’s faculty of arts and
social sciences, some students who would otherwise be asked to leave
after a poor first year are offered a second chance through the faculty’s
“Fresh Start” program. Students in the program get extra help with study
skills and motivation as well as individual support and monitoring throughout the school year. Fresh Start works with 80 students, on average, each
year, and since its inception in 2008 it has had a 70-percent success rate
in helping them stick with their studies and eventually graduate.
“We can’t blame students all the time for their own failure,” says
Dr. Wright. Along with several Quebec professors, he helped develop an
online tool called SAMI-Perseverance that provides hundreds of interactive learning sessions to support postsecondary students in their first year.
The tool allows students to develop skills that help them stick to their
art of the problem in accepting failure as a useful tool may
be in the stigma that is so attached to it. In How Children
Succeed, U.S. journalist Paul Tough makes the case that students should not be protected from failure but instead taught
how to cope with it and manage it, so they can build the “grit”
and character that, he discovered, is more common to successful people than a high IQ. The book, published in 2012, argues
that young people who lack a capacity for persistence in the
face of adversity may choose what’s safe rather than risk failure by pursuing goals they might find more fulfilling and which could be
more valuable to society.
Even Ms. Thomas, one of the students in Dr. Venkatesh’s graduate class
in statistics, says that being set up to fail for a greater good was daunting. “As
much as some of us like to believe that we don’t work for the grades, after
all this time, we still do,” she observes.
Keeping the focus on learning rather than on conventional markers of
success like grades means accepting trial and error as an essential part of
the process, says Stefan Sikora, associate professor of education and
schooling at Mount Royal University. An expert in failure, and its champion, Dr. Sikora dropped out of academia at least three times, once due to
a profoundly negative academic experience, while he looked for an intellectual niche that made sense to him. Along the way, he variously
worked as a professional tennis instructor, substitute teacher, playwright,
ambulance crew worker, and teacher, principal and education adviser
for British Columbia’s Kluskus Indian Band.
“I tell my students I’m the biggest failure I know and I’m delighted to
be,” Dr. Sikora says. “The pressure not to fail interfered with my learning.”
In his 2010 paper entitled “Failure is Not Only an Option – It is, in
Fact, a Necessity!” Dr. Sikora describes what happens when he asks his
students to name some skills that human beings master in one take. All
they can come up with are learning to breathe at birth and sky-diving, two
skills that people don’t get a second chance to try. Part of a teacher’s role
is to help students accept that failure and mistakes are vital parts of their
learning and show them how to use them to adjust their performance.
While Dr. Sikora says learning environments should be supportive,
inspirational and free from a looming sense of punishment for messing
up, he also believes there “have to be consequences” for lack of effort. The
case of the Edmonton high school physics teacher, Lynden Dorval, fired
in 2012 after refusing to comply with a “no zero” marking policy at his
school for incomplete assignments, “pisses me off. [Dorval] didn’t fail the
student,” he says. “The student failed the student.”
Whether we tip-toe around the word failure and prefer to call it
something else or shout its name out loud and embrace it for all it can
teach, failure can prove its value only when it drives us on to something
better. Proponents of productive failure believe that’s exactly what it does.
Accepting failure and harnessing it may be a key to the innovation that,
we’re told, success will be built upon in a globalized economy. But before
that can happen, we have to let failure in the door, and give it the time
and space to do its best work.
Moira MacDonald is a Toronto-based reporter who specializes in writing about education
at all levels and is a frequent contributor to University Affairs.
deliberately puts students into
that are over their heads.