Failing – or not yet achieving the standard?

Should children be allowed to fail?

This was particularly relevant this week when exploring the development of our Certificate of Educational Achievement for S1 – S3.  The question was asked of me “Will children be able to fail to achieve the certificate? Now such a seemingly innocent question struck at what has become a core principal of Scottish education over the last 30 years.  Much of this was set in train by the Munn and Dunning Reports published in 1977.  The Dunning Committee focused upon assessment, underpinned by the following principle:

“All pupils should be assessed in a way which would enable them to demonstrate positive achievement”

And there you have it.  One simple sentence which was translated in practice into “no child shall experience failure”, i.e.  even the lowest level of achievement should be recognised. 

Such thinking has certainly become the norm in Scottish education and woe betide anyone who thinks of developing any assessment system which doesn’t provide some form of recognition for all – even those who have done nothing to deserve such recognition.

Which got me to thinking about failure, for it seems to me that the very word in educational terms has become interwoven with the notions of self-esteem and personal well-being, i.e.  “You cannot label a child as a failure” – so what we do is find ways to recognise even the smallest achievements and try to give them value. But perhaps it’s time to question such orthodoxy?

Perhaps we have created a comfort zone for some children – who have come to learn that they need not invest any personal effort in their own education -knowing that whatever they do will gain some credit.  I’d say this is particularly true of many boys. 

Which takes me back to our plans for a Certificate of Educational Achievement to cover the S1-S3 stages of secondary school. In our system we hope to recognise achievement at three levels – pass, merit and excellence.  Which leads, naturally, to the question – so does everyone pass?  And, of course, if someone doesn’t pass then – then they must have, logically, failed.

But pause here and tease this out as little further. In our system we are hoping to develop a system whereby learners can accumulate points for achievement in a range of subject areas, wider achievements, skills, etc.  Our system will attempt recognise that personal achievements vary from person to person and that strengths in one area can compensate for weaknesses in others. In such a system accumulation of points lead one towards the thresholds established for pass, merit and excellence.  In this way learners don’t fail – as such – but have not yet reached the standard

One last point – we should always attempt to recognise the achievements of those who have particular and severe additional support for learning needs – in this way thresholds could be modified to take account of their personal circumstances. However, I would see this proportion of learners to be very small.


3 thoughts on “Failing – or not yet achieving the standard?

  1. Hi Don
    Just thought I would remind you that a while back you referred to resilience in your blog and I think that we can link this to your blog about failing.
    I have spent some time thinking about letting our youngsters fail and I have come to the conclusion that, however hard it is, we should let young people fail at times.
    The important part, though, is to be there to help build success from any failure by giving strategies for them to find out what went wrong and how to get better. However this will only happen if can also build into this the ability for our young people to stick at something or if you like be persistence or resilient.

    History is ripe with examples of people whose greatest success came after their biggest failure. For instance:

    “Success is 99% failure” – Soichiro Honda

    “Making your mark on the world is hard. If it were easy, everybody would do it. But it’s not. It takes patience, it takes commitment, and it comes with plenty of failure along the way. The real test is not whether you avoid this failure, because you won’t. It’s whether you let it harden or shame you into inaction, or whether you learn from it; whether you choose to persevere.” – Barack Obama

  2. Part of the issue here is that school definitions of success are too often limited to measuring traditional mathematical and linguistic intelligence. Folk who have strengths in other areas – interpersonal, intrapersonal, spatial, naturalist etc often don’t find the skills associated with these intelligences even rated at school, particularly in secondary school.

    I just attended a graduation at Newbattle Abbey yesterday. So many students who failed in school who have now achieved an entry to university. The issue of school failures is big and the narrowness of the opportunities on offer in secondary schools has to be grappled with. So much of what young people are asked to learn seems so irrelevant to what is needed to make a go of life and to what young folk are interested in today.

  3. It is imperative that we challenge our pupils to the point of failure. The caveat is that we make it safe – nay desirable – to ‘fail’ as a learning opportunity.
    Without the positive experience of struggling to make sense of something our self esteem may remain high but our belief in our ability to succeed in specific situations – self efficacy – will be undeveloped. Our sense of self-efficacy plays a major role in how we approach goals, tasks, and challenges. Individuals who identify their own strengths and weaknesses are the real learners.

    A major factor in whether people achieve expertise is not some fixed prior ability but ‘purposeful engagement’. The ‘Fixed Mindset’, so well described by Carol Dweck (SLF09), creates ‘an urgency to prove oneself over and over’. It encompasses a belief that you only have a certain amount of intelligence and that this has to be proven time and again. The need to look clever at the expense of learning, the need to make sure you succeed at all costs, is ultimately debilitating and certainly does not lead to progress. The over-riding concern is how you’ll be judged, not with how you’ll improve.
    Those with a ‘Growth Mindset’ believe they can cultivate qualities through effort, application and experience. They are ready to take risks, to confront challenges and to persist. They can ‘convert life’s setbacks into future successes’.
    None of us is a fully evolved, flawless being with nothing more to learn. We owe it to our children to help them understand that ‘becoming is more important than being’.

Comments are closed.