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Making Failure An Option

My ninth-graders and I are still working our way through “Romeo and Juliet.” I’ve taught this play before. For the most part, I’m using lessons I’ve used before, just tweaking them to suit my new students. I’m not being lazy. I’m being smart. My lessons are good and I know they work.

In the middle of Act III, however, we got to my favorite scene in the play. It’s the one where Friar Lawrence chews Romeo out for being self-absorbed and melodramatic. While I love this scene, I’ve never figured out an effective way to teach it: it’s filled with long speeches that students often find very difficult. In the past, I’ve just walked the students through the scene, making sure they get the key points. It works, but it’s kind of boring.

This year, rather than reuse my old lesson, I planned something new. I put the students into groups and had them divide up the speeches amongst their group members. In their groups, the students created contemporary versions of the scene, translated into their own contemporary language and supplemented with stage directions. It was a two-day lesson and my plan was to have the students perform their versions of the scene at the end of the second day.

As it turned out, I was too ambitious. While a few groups completed everything in two days, none of them had a chance to rehearse for a performance. Many groups didn’t even complete their stage directions. According to the goals I set during planning, I — or my students, or both — had failed.

Maybe I’m being too hard on myself. After all, the students learned a lot from these lessons; the evidence was there in their writing. What’s more, I got a better sense of how to teach this scene next year, and of my students’ capacity to handle complex texts independently. In the end, however, I set my objectives before the lesson and I failed to reach them.

This facile approach to evaluation is all the rage these days. Teachers across the country are being forced to set “Student Learning Objectives” at the beginning of the semester or school year; if the students fail to reach these objectives, the teachers are deemed ineffective. For example, in September I might say that I’d like ninth-grader Regina to produce precise thesis statements and develop her arguments using textual evidence. Sounds like a good goal, right? By the end of ninth grade, I hope all of my students can do this.

Here’s the problem: Regina tries really hard all year, and she still struggles to craft strong thesis statements. That should be okay, because all of her practice will eventually pay off. Learning is complicated; sometimes it takes longer than we expect.

Unfortunately, according to the boosters of value-added metrics for assessing teachers (including the Gates Foundation and Education Secretary Arne Duncan), learning is simple, and so is teacher evaluation. Effective teachers achieve measurable results, and ineffective ones don’t. If Regina’s not writing strong theses by the end of the year, I should pay the price.

So this is one problem with the value-added approach: no measuring stick can account for the complexities of teaching and learning. Here’s another problem: failure can be a good thing. This isn’t just philosophizing or fuzzy math. It’s a report from the American Psychological Association.

According to the report, “Children may perform better in school and feel more confident about themselves if they are told that failure is a normal part of learning, rather than being pressured to succeed at all costs.” This makes a lot of sense to me; I’ll bet it makes sense to a lot of teachers and parents too. It also runs completely contrary to the high-stakes, high-pressure approach driving educational reform in New York and beyond.

If pressure is bad for students, imagine what it’s doing to teachers. Beyond the intense public and political attacks we’ve faced from all sides in recent years, the increased pressure placed on our students by high-stakes testing is actually undermining our work in the classroom.

If people are really serious about improving public education, it seems pretty obvious that the first step should be decreasing the pressure placed on students and teachers. The findings are clear: Fear of failure is bad for everyone.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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