Safe Enough to Fail

There is a new saying in education – a school should be a safe enough place that students will take risks and learn to fail.

At first glance, it is a little confusing because safety and risk are a contradiction in terms. When I was in school, risky behavior was not thought to be a good thing. Failure was also something to which you did not aspire. I failed a Latin exam in ninth grade, and I survived, but it was not the happiest moment in my academic career, and that winter break was a bit cold at home. Yet there is something to thinking of safety as the concept that students are allowed to try things and explore, regardless of the outcome.
We want school to be a place the students look forward to coming to each day because it affords them opportunities, not a place that guarantees them success. So what does it mean to learn to fail? In the context of a school, it can mean simply that your effort and intention might not add up to success. A teacher’s job at Grace is to facilitate the success of the students, which does not mean every child finds it every day, but that every day across all the grades, teachers are focused on student success.
In the fall, beautiful 3-D models of cells adorned the display case in the lobby at 86 Fourth Avenue. As a science project, students had to make a model of a plant or animal cell that showed specific organelles, using any material they chose. Many projects turned out just as students expected; others did not. In one case the resin used didn’t harden and model looked nothing like the intended design. In another, the foundation cracked leaving a long scar across the project. With the support of a great teacher, however, problems become useful opportunities. In the first case, the student made some adjustments and, while the final project was different than they hoped, the student learned a lot in the process. In the second case, the student found a way to work the crack into the design.
To be safe enough to fail in school, students must know that the teachers and the school are committed to them as long as they stay committed to themselves. We can lose track of the fact that our students are part of a social contract when they come to school, especially in independent schools, where families are making a significant investment in the school. The adults, rightly, focus on How do I make it work for my student/child? But we must not lose sight of the student’s end of the bargain. At times, attention and support can lull a student into the false sense that the hard work will be done for them if they wait long enough, unintentionally sending the message that they are too precious to fail.
I have seen students who believed that their adult world had such a vested interest in their success that, no matter what, someone would bail them out if they fell short. I have always loved the wisdom of the book, “The Blessings of the Skinned Knee” by Wendy Mogel, which imparts the notion that true safety only comes with the acceptance of responsibility and experience of consequences.
The logical next question for a student becomes, “If I am committed, focused and hard-working, am I guaranteed success?” They are trying. The adults are with them. How could they fail? Failure is less likely, for sure, but still possible. If school becomes a place where we guarantee success based on effort alone, then we will have failed our students and left them unprepared for life. One of the best reasons to have sports teams at schools is to disabuse students of the notion that effort, talent and success are all the same thing. Sports, like life, rewards talent and effort but does not guarantee success. Luck and circumstance play a significant role, and the variably distributed talent also comes into play.
The same is true in any human endeavor. I love to sing, but my love of singing is not necessarily a fun thing for those who have to listen. In high school, I joined a church choir. The choirmaster applauded my effort, hard work and enthusiasm, but he and I never mistook effort for excellence. He rewarded me with the responsibility of being the crucifer, so that I would pass through the congregation during the processional and recessional hymns without singing, and be seated far in the back during the service. He explained his reasoning to me, and though I was disappointed I was also honored by his honesty. I had not failed, but I had not succeeded either. Effort was rewarded, but excellence or, in my case, the lack thereof, was recognized.
If we are committed to excellence, but also want students to learn from taking chances and trying things in which they may or may not attain it, we have to be ready to accept small failures as a necessary by-product. The truth is, we often see students fail to reach set goals. Several students have attempted to create a stock-picking algorithm as part of their year-long tenth grade independent project. So far, no one has been able to create an effective one, but while those students did not succeed at their intended goal, they also did not truly fail. They dove deep into the way the financial services industry worked, improved their calculus skills and built relationships with people working in that industry. They made huge gains in knowledge and experience that may one day help them write their elusive algorithm or that may help them in innumerable other ways.
So at Grace we believe in “excellence not narrowly defined.” We expect excellence will be particular to each student and that it is our responsibility to help nearly 800 different students discover the pathways to get there. We must adjust our systems that recognize excellence to value the confluence of effort, talent and excellence. A student who comes to school knowing there is a pathway to achieving excellence on his or her terms feels safe. A student who feels that the community only recognizes a narrow band of excellence that does not include her or his talent or passion will never feel safe and connected.
We work to create an environment where people can strive for excellence and might not attain it; this is not failure. The idea that effort alone may not translate into the complete fulfillment of a goal feels unsettling, but this is also not failure. True failure comes from not trying to attain excellence; truly safe schools cultivate a culture that is comfortable with the ups and downs of trying things, taking chances and creating something unexpected.