The 'F' Word

The new it solution in education right now has me a bit concerned. It seems that the missing ingredient in the success of our students is failure. The basic tenet of this philosophy is that if our students experience failure on a regular basis, they will develop the skills necessary to overcome and prosper. But why failure? How has failure become the panacea for our student achievement doldrums? As a parent, teacher, and writer, I stress the choices we make when we employ language and to me, we are approaching slippery terrain as we continue to throw around the "F" word.

For some reason, the "F" word causes a visceral reaction in me because it's not one of those words that should be thrown around lightly. But, the proponents of the failure movement, use my instinctual response as justification for its prominence in society and especially the classroom. People employing this line of thought believe that by removing the word's power it will become less of an obstacle in our students' lives. That by forging grit and resiliency into students, they will experience better academic outcomes and therefore better life outcomes.

While I can't disagree that grit and resiliency are strong indicators for future success, what we don't know right now is how those attributes are obtained and utilized by individuals. The history books are full of individuals who overcame incredible odds to achieve great success, but the correlation of success and perseverance is difficult for me to quantify. We are starting to see some research into this relationship. Dr. Angela Duckworth has made grit a popular topic in many schools, but I'm worried that we don't fully understand the dynamics of this relationship yet.

For me, it's a case of the chicken or the egg. Are individuals successful because they've overcome failure many times and have thus learned to be resilient, or is it due to their resiliency that they have overcome failure and become successful?

While this may like a semantic argument and inconsequential, the true relationship of the causation of these phenomena are important to get right. Of course there has been a swift and immediate reaction to this correlation in our popular culture. Before researchers have had ample time to fully establish the relationship, the media have started picking up on this growing trend and now there are numerous articles and books that encourage parents to let their children fail. The Huffington Post recently ran Sarah Walter's blog about resisting the temptation of rescuing her son during a tough ordeal at school. The Atlantic's Jessica Lahey has written many times about the dangers of "helicopter parenting." These are just two of the plethora of sources that have sprouted up in our modern popular culture.

But to me, there is a sort of arrogance in this type of thinking and an underlying assumption that has me concerned. The general thinking seems to be, from what I have gathered, that our kids live lives that are so sterilized and secure that the complete notion of failure has been removed and due to this hyper-protection, they have not developed coping mechanisms to deal with adversity. This is nothing new. The artists, poets, and historians have long bemoaned the fall of the pampered to the inability to cope with the slightest disruption to their carefree lives, but according to the National Center for Children in Poverty, this luxury is the exception not the norm. In a country where 16 million children live in families below the federal poverty level and more alarmingly, 45 percent of children live in low-income families (families that make below $44,700 for a family of four) the awareness of failure is very real.

Kids and adults that live in such an insecure environment exhibit more resiliency than I can even imagine. For me, as an educator, when schools allow their students to fail they are acting, at best, misguided, and, at worse, cruel. School and learning shouldn't be an exercise in failing but instead a place where successes are nurtured and given room to grow. Confidence is the secret ingredient to resiliency. Knowing that I have the capacity to be resolute can only come from the feeling of success that has come to me in some other experience. It's through these past experiences, these past accomplishments, that I know I can persevere. I can apply the feeling of success to future struggles.

Asking a child that knows nothing but difficulty and grief to "toughen up" and that they need more failure is belittling and sad. I wish we had a world where our biggest problem was that our kids need to fail more often, but unfortunately we have an entire segment of our world that knows nothing but.

As the researchers and scientists continue to examine the relationship between failure and success, let's cautiously proceed with our use of the "F" word. And let each of us make the best possible decisions we can for our children.