Failure Does NOT Instruct

(Or, Why teachers give everyone a trophy.)


No doubt all of us are on fairly intimate terms with failure. The road leading to most of our present states is littered with the smoking remains of our mistakes. It’s easy, then, to look back and count these moments as instructive, as either necessary for today’s success or an ignored lesson responsible for today’s failures. To that wisdom, we hear quite a bit about the benefits of failure, the learning potential, especially as failure relates to students. Often enough, whatever weaknesses our current students exhibit is chalked up to an absence of the fortifying experiences of failure we ourselves went through on our own journey. And thus we hear a lot about the need for coddled students to experience the wonderfully instructive power of being told they are wrong.

The conclusion is this: School is too easy.

And this: Failure is not merely instructive, it’s essential to wisdom and moral order.

So, a few Bromides out of the way first.

  1. Yes, it’s true, Failure is a part of learning. Success has rewards, but ‘learning’ isn’t entirely one of them. Most learning occurs before success, in the trial and error process, where one is neither winning nor losing, just working and not succeeding.
  2. Yes, it’s true, Failure is not unnatural. Much of our life is spent fundamentally failing in one way or another. Only those born with exceptional gifts are denied the experience of struggle that is intimately married to failure.
  3. Yes, it’s true, Failure creates strength. Though it’s not exactly a muscular strength. The strength of failure is in callous, tendon, cartilage. The strength one gets from failure is the thickened skin of scar.
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Zoltan Tasi — Unsplash

But let’s not kid ourselves. The failure of natural disaster, or chance, or unanticipated event is not educational. One doesn’t really ‘learn’ anything but to move on, around, through. Great failures are certainly not welcome lessons or designed educational moments. Disaster — the bridge that collapses, the disease that spreads — is the kind of failure we go to great lengths to ensure we never have to experience again, or ever. If the building falls because of an earthquake, we don’t chalk the tragedy up to a learning experience. The building was not designed as some kind of learning experience; it was designed to avoid the failure of falling down. Perhaps more importantly, the more we know, the more we anticipate failure, the more we do to make sure it doesn’t occur. The ‘knowledge’ we gain from most failure is less about skill or fact or detail as it is about resilience, about moving on after the tragedy. We anticipate that failure; we don’t wait to learn from it.

If failure was so very instructive, so very powerful, most of the world would be a hell of a lot more successful.

It’s true, of course, that we cannot allow failure to signal defeat. Though all of us inevitably lose, to time itself and death and change, the great sublime beauty of humanity, or of life, is that it forges on anyway. Overcoming failure is worthy of celebration, but that doesn’t mean failure itself should be celebrated, much less treated as educational.

The pernicious and subtle danger of insisting that we LEARN from failure is that it makes failure a learning tool when it is not.

We don’t learn from failure; we learn to overcome it. Learning is the opposite of failure; learning is failure’s greatest enemy. To embrace failure as a learning tool is a little like embracing sin as the path to salvation.

Teachers know this, and it leads them down some confusing paths.

This conflict makes it easy to leap onto the ‘kids are coddled’ parade whenever it happens by. And it’s also why teachers rarely leap to a heartfelt defense of their coddling. It’s also one reason grade inflation is so difficult to stop, even though everyone keeps harping about how terrible it is.

When we speak glowingly of failure, we are talking of attempting something new or untested. We are speaking of competition, of pitting ourselves against an adversary that might win. Or of taking a chance, a risk. But it’s not the loss or spectacular crash that we admire so much; it’s the getting up, putting out the fires, getting back behind the wheel that is inspirational.

Failure is a motivational tool — the stick over the carrot. Teachers, by and large, are not in the business of wielding sticks, and you really don’t want them to be, not most of the time, not even a little more than 50% of the time. The stick is a tool of last resort in school. This whole notion of ‘failing forward’ or ‘learning through failure’ is terribly misguided, and it places upon us a burden that only the failures ever have to bear. Failure is unavoidable, but it doesn’t actually instruct, which is where we get confused.

I know, from years of experience (not to mention my own intimate friendship with failing) that nearly all students fail (as I have in the past) because they simply don’t do the work. For some, the absence of effort is extreme, and the failure equally severe. Most teachers will tell you that it takes a lot of work to fail a class. It takes consistent and persistent absence, because the system is designed to get them working, to keep them succeeding, in however small a capacity. The threat of failure, and the actual presence of it, is fundamentally, almost universally, an attempt to get students to do the work through fear or suffering. The threat of failure is not about learning, it’s about motivation. But does it truly motivate? And more importantly, does failure create learning?

There is also a sharp difference between a motivational tool and a learning tool, a difference that can create counter-productive actions. A motivational tool urges one forward through difficulty or pain or uncertainty. Failure is a kind of ‘from behind’ push. You run away from it, towards something else. What you run towards, though, isn’t necessarily better; what you run towards is often simply ‘safer’. For many students, failure actually causes them to run away from the learning we desire, since the learning was the goal that they failed at. A more powerful motivational tool in learning is the possibility of success, not the suffering of failure. A “learning tool” has little to do with success or failure at all; a learning tool is merely a tactic or device or instrument that makes understanding, skill development, or knowledge acquisition better.

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Zoltan Tasi — Unsplash

And it has to be pointed out that embracing failure as a learning tool forces one to ignore some rather obvious features of the landscape. The first is the absence of fantastic success in places where failure dominates. It is far easier to succeed if you come from a rich family, where failure is rare or dampened or the effects slight, than from a poor one, where failure manages to make itself known in countless ways, from the failure to have a good meal in the morning, to failure to save for the future or hold down a job, to the failure to avoid addiction, to maintain a relationship, to study harder. A second is a very narrow and convenient definition of failure, one that implies failure is merely a personal matter of studying harder or saving wisely. Failure doesn’t work that way; failure is most often a cascade of error and tragedy, an avalanche far outside one’s own control. A third is the necessary second chance, or third chance, or fourth or a hundreth, that a person needs to move past failure. In this regard, learning is less about the lesson of failure as it is the opportunity to leave it behind. A fourth is the location of victory over failure, particularly as it applies to teachers and teaching. Teachers are the examples of success, and while part of the job is to put students on a path towards knowledge upon which they may fail, the majority of the job involves pointing out all the ways to avoid that failure. We enter the classroom as experts in success in our field, not examples of failure, and we certainly don’t deliberately design our lessons so students repeatedly encounter the glorious learning power of making mistakes.

It’s also necessary to recognize that failure is rarely the sole product of ignorance.

We know, most of the time, exactly why we have failed. We failed because we were lazy. We failed because we are stupid. We failed because we didn’t work hard enough. Or we failed because we didn’t really care. We failed because the task was pointless, or stupid, or meaningless.

Often times, our failure is neither a flaw in our character or an instructive step towards future success. Often times our failure is a product of injustice — of other people’s moral or character failings — and there’s little lesson there except anger or submission. We fail because the other side cheats. We failed, quite simply, because the task was impossible, or unfair, or out of our control.

There’s no ‘lesson’ in that. There’s no strengthening of our skill, just a hardening of our heart.

We fail because we lose courage. We fail because we can’t force ourselves through the present moment’s discomfort, or uncertainty, or struggle, or pain — and not because the pain itself is good. The pain of work is painful. It’s boredom. It’s tedious repetition. It’s sacrifice — of time, attention, pleasure. It’s embrace of struggle. But none of it is really related to failure. We embrace all of it because of success. We embrace struggle to achieve success, and the fact that we fail really has little instructive value.

Kids don’t learn through failure. Kids learn through success.

Failure, a good deal of the time, isn’t instructive at all. Students don’t make mistakes on a math problem and then ‘learn’ the correct answer from the error. They don’t write a shitty essay and then fix their mistakes. Any teacher can tell you that kids glance at the grade, ignore the comments, and move on. If failure were so very instructive, the most effective education would be guided failure, which it most assuredly is not. Education is guided success. We reward the students who succeed. We only punish the students who fail. We don’t reward them at all for it. And rarely, rarely is that failure much responsible for how they improve. More often than not, the failure leads them away from learning, not stampeding towards it.

Failure does not instruct. Failure may drive, it may motivate, but even this subtext is wrong. Because teaching is about instruction. Students learn through investment, through care, through diligence and concentration. The goal is to learn and grow. And failure, however you frame it, is rarely growth. The threat of failure will motivate a student to invest more time in studying, or writing and revision, or practice, but it really doesn’t motivate a student to actually learn, which is the ultimate goal. Students learn through the success that stands opposite failure. Our job as teachers is not to instruct students through failure, but to encourage students through success.

It may well be that attempting to help every student achieve success diminishes the power of success altogether. It’s true that giving every kid a trophy turns trophies into scrap. But to an educator, a trophy is just another tool for teaching, one whose power far outweighs anything else.

The subtexts of all these little editorials we keep reading about the spoiling absence of failure aren’t really about learning at all. They are about character, and if we want our education system to be ‘teaching’ character, we probably ought to start saying so, and thinking hard about what that even means, and how failure applies.

In the meantime, a teacher’s job is to instruct, to impart skill and knowledge. We use every tool we have to get the job done, but we only reach for the hammer of failure when we’ve exhausted every other tool at hand, because we know that hammer, half the time, simply breaks whatever we’re working on.

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just another frustrated teacher

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