Wednesday, June 1, 2011


As I graded my set of final exams, I realized that failure is not always bad. I had before me the exam of a bright young woman. I knew that she'd studied. But still she missed 12 out of 94. As I so often do, I began to question myself. Wasn't her failure a result of my own? Hadn't I failed her?

But then I realized that I had not. I regret to say that only at the end of my 4th year have I achieved the confidence to draw such a conclusion. I do my job. I do it well. I'd taught her what she needed to know, but the exam really was a challenge. When you really challenge, you must expect failure. Not complete failure, of course, but where there is genuine challenge, there too will be failure to always meet all expectations.

Again I say that failure isn't always bad. For what is the alternative? A course in which most of our students give mostly right answers. How could that come to pass? Only if our questions were always easy. But that - a course whose demands were easily met - would be a mistake. We need to challenge our students. We need to give them material that is difficult for them, and if we do that, some of it they won't get.

Now, I don't suggest that we make the work so difficult that students have little or no hope of success. But we do have to challenge. This means that there's a sweet spot to hit. We have to push them (and expect the inevitable failure). But we push them to do only those things that most of them, given sufficient diligence, can do.

I find the analogy of sport instructive. Should we expect our coaches to give their kids only those tasks that their can easily accomplish? Of course not. Such a coach would never last. Her teams would be eaten up by the competition. But if not this, what do we expect of our coaches? Push their kids, push them hard. The inevitable result is that their kids will fail and fail again. They won't live up to that very high standard that the coach sets. But a good coach will not only push. She will make it possible for her kids to reach the goals she sets if only they work hard enough. The sweet spot here is somewhere in damn hard, just a bit shy of impossible. Now, success will come (of course to be met with a demand for some new damn hard thing), and when it does it really will be worth something.

What of those who don't show the requisite diligence and thus get little or nothing out of our courses? Encourage them. Offer them help. But if they don't take up the challenge, they must be left behind. I will not sacrifice those of my students who do the work asked of them for those who do not. I will not dumb down my course so that everyone can succeed. Let those who will not work fall to the side (but reach out to them if ever they reach out to you). Let those who were undeterred by failure enjoy the success that they have earned.

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