Author Archives: Lynne Coleman

Let’s get our words right: what do we mean by “failure”?


I am a teacher. Have been since middle school when, under the watchful eye of the intrepid Wilberta (Bert) Lipps, who had been my grandmother’s swimming teacher some five decades earlier, I taught five-year-olds to swim and helped the over-65 group to stay fit in early-bird swim sessions. Since then, I have learned that being a teacher – no matter where you are – is not easy.  I continue to see this today each time I work with dedicated, hard-working teachers in my role as consultant for Cornerstone Educational Consulting.

Bert was at least seventy years old by the time she was my swimming instructor. She worked us, lap after lap, satisfied only with my personal best. She was honest with me, clear when I hadn’t reached expectations (I knew what she expected and I will swear to this day that she had eyes in the back of her head), and not once did she do the work for me or tell me I had failed and she needed to move on.

Recently I ran across a blog post that expressed honest concern about failure, from the perspective of a teacher and a parent. I thought Of Bert.

Josh Stumpenhorst ( worries about trends in some arenas toward sugar-coating what kids don’t know. He is thinking through our responsibilities toward learners for helping them know how to cope in the face of failure. I whole-heartedly agree that we should not tell kids they are performing better than they  actually are, though I do think that this communication needs to be delivered in a manner that encourages learners to try for more – to do better.
Bert was harsh sometimes, true. But it never occurred to her that I wouldn’t reach my personal best. It therefore never occurred to me.
First, it isn’t about making kids feel good about themselves; it is about helping kids learn by the very act of being honest (not brutal, but honest) with where they are in their learning. If they don’t have an accurate picture of where they actually are in their learning, kids – any of us really – are misled and uninformed. Not good. Not productive. Telling them where they are in their learning is not looking at them and saying, “you Failed.”  It IS helping them understand what they need to do in order to do better. 
Second, celebrating failure? Where does that come from? As teachers and parents aren’t we duty bound to actually help kids learn how to do things better? That isn’t celebrating failure – that’s ensuring that they know what to do next when they haven’t reached a temporal goal. Again, the rule ought to be don’t lie; it also ought to be not to hang learners over a cliff making them guess blindly what they could do to be better. 
The problem, I think, is two-fold. 
Begin with how we define failure. The word itself suggests that what’s done is done and there is no going back. And that is just not how life works. Think about it. As adults, excepting death of course, we nearly always have an opportunity to try it again – though we don’t always take up those opportunities. Why would we tell kids such opportunity is past? Don’t we teach them the wrong things when we don’t help them progress?
I’m reminded of the root of the word assessment – from assidere, meaning “to sit beside.”  If what we are discussing is learning, then assessment should be treated as a means to show someone, honestly and in a manner that can be understood, how to proceed. It is in the process.
Failure is a loaded word; as such, it can distract even the most dedicated of parents and teachers from discussing what we really need to be doing to increase learning. The word failure is, according to Webster, “an abrupt cessation of normal functioning.” or “a fracture”.  That cessation or fracture is fear-laden – and that definition, when applied to learning, is misleading at best. At worst it teaches unreasoning fear and an aversion to risk, the very qualities we aim to help our students overcome.
I wonder if we shouldn’t be more careful with our words. Falling short of something (as we see with students and learning) is a challenge, yes; a deficiency, O.K. But nine times out of ten, it isn’t yet a failure. 
If we are truly sitting beside and learning beside kids throughout the process, as Bert did with me in the swimming pool all those years ago, the instances of outright failure will diminish significantly. Let us stop using the mistaken reasoning of teaching kids “how to fail” as an excuse for not teaching them how to succeed.


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