Monday, April 27, 2009

Why it is Important to Fail Students

This post is in response to the article, Are 'No-fail' grading systems helping or hurting students?

When I was about 4 years old, I was babysat by a family friend who lived in an area that would fittingly be described as the boonies. They owned animals - not for the companionship but for consumption, and they were too far from civilization for garbage trucks to trek, so they burned their trash in a barrel behind the house. No heating or cooling systems either – in the summer, the windows were opened, and in the winter, warmth blasted from the colossus cast iron stove that filled much of the living room.

That stove intrigued me. And despite the constant warning, I had to learn for myself that it was not to be touched by little hands. I wasn't burned badly enough to require grafting, or even more than a wet washcloth, but you better believe that I learned my lesson and never touched that stove again.

Why did I touch the stove despite repeated warnings not to? Because you don't learn what hot is without experiencing it. It's an idea too abstract for a young mind to grasp without direct experience.

The same can be said about the ideas of success and failure. As teachers, how are we to convey financial security, homeownership, and all the other attributes of success to students whose only priority is getting home to play Call of Duty? To keep with the hot stove analogy – Students need to feel the heat now, so they don't get burned later in life.

This is why it scares me that schools are doing away with failure policies. Who cares if it hurts the kids' self esteem. So will foreclosure, and unemployment, and poverty, and welfare, and... well, you get the idea. By doing away with the dreaded 'F' we are not allowing our kids to be successful. We are simply making the searing pain of failure much worse later in life.

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