Failure -a life lesson?

My son is 12. This is not to try and claim any sort of credit for the achievement but simply to aid context. My son is 12, my daughter is 10 and they will both be sitting their SATs in a couple of weeks.

Yes, yes, I know 12 seems wrong but it is a middle school and they do the optional tests in year 8. Right, so cue all sorts of anxiety and pressure, right? After all, we are the archetype middle class parents whose offspring claw their way to educational advantage by standing on the poverty ridden, malnourished backs of the socially downtrodden. Well, no, actually. First, because as state school teachers we wouldn’t want our children to benefit at someone else’s expense (we’re not Tories) but mainly because there is no need. Our lack of anxiety toward and, it would fair to say, honest but cynical assessment of the value of such tests, which has been shared with our children, means that they understand why we value their annual reports and parent consultations more than test results.

To their credit, both mini-mes require no pressure. They are self-motivated, hard working young people of whom I am immensely proud. I don’t understand why, but it has to be linked to the DNA of her good self as I was a feckless, lazy daydreamer during most of my schooldays. Bright enough to get by with minimal effort but never achieving my potential. I focused what little attention I had on everything but school lessons – sport, music, etc. When I was in class I spent most of the time looking out of the window. As a result I did well in everything except exams where I just scraped by. Not until University did I discover that I had a good brain which, when challenged and stimulated, could achieve some pretty impressive stuff. At no point, however, did I believe that my lack of academic achievement was anyone’s fault, but mine. Teachers tried to keep me on target but they weren’t going to do it for me!

The personal shame and belief that I should have done better at school has never left me and I have invested not inconsiderable sums of money in proving, really only to myself, that I am not stupid. The current flagellation taking the form of a very enjoyable and engaging Professional Doctorate. Now, Junior is different. He loves school. He absolutely thrives on tests. He gets frustrated when they have to do enrichment after the tests. His sister is equally hard-working if a little less passionate about completing practice assessments! Both are rapidly progressing in JuJitsu (which is brilliant for overcoming dyspraxia, by the way) and both are making excellent progress on Piano! We know they will do their best and they will try, so whatever they achieve is fine by us.

All well and good for us, but for too many young people, the commodification of the system is engendering a sense of entitlement which negates the role of hard work, resilience and personal achievement. Too many are spoon fed and scaffolded to attain passes that are not deserved. The fear of accountability for the teacher is undermining one of life’s most important lessons for the student.

This is not an issue exclusive to the disadvantaged by any means although there are clearly evidenced links between social disadvantage and academic success or lack of. My point here is not whether the system is reproducing disadvantage (middle class parents more able to access and play the system), it is simply about a critical life lesson that reward has to be worked for and earned. If higher grades give more opportunities and higher life income then everyone should have to meet the same criteria. Where is the fairness in two people being awarded the same grade when one has had virtual 1:1 support at every step to the extent that, actually, most of the thinking and work has been done by someone else?

Young people of 15/16 are easily old enough to accept responsibility for their actions in a criminal sense, but also in an academic one. If you aren’t prepared to do the work, don’t expect the grade and nobody will dig you out of the hole. I am not suggesting that teachers shouldn’t chase, badger, cajole, demand, punish, reward and support as much as possible or that those with specific needs shouldn’t get the appropriate support to level the playing field- but when teachers push and sometimes cross the very limits of acceptable practice to meet a target, where is the justice for those who did it themselves?

Michael Gove has suggested, without any obvious sense of irony, that our children need to learn to cope with failure. Although I question deeply his motives, I agree in a sense. Both success and failure are ‘earned’ and as teachers we should be trusted to know when to draw the line between the two.

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One Response to Failure -a life lesson?

  1. kmcr097 says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more! Kids are handed too much for free for fear of hurting their self-esteem, and then we wonder why they can’t achieve at standardized testing! Clearly it’s because the tests are too hard and too unfair, not because the kids aren’t applying themselves. That would mean we would have to, heaven forbid, teach kids to apply themselves!

    My husband was very much like you in school, only doing what he needed to get by, not really trying. Then we got to college and he just exploded with the learning fever, and has gone on to a Master’s Degree (with a 4.0 no less!). I can’t help but wonder, how different would his life be if some teacher had let his laziness result in an F? Would it have caused him to work harder? I think so.

    Of course, it’s a thin line. You don’t want failure to be un-motivating. “I’m already failing, so why should I even try this worksheet?” I guess I feel they just need to start earlier. Don’t wait until middle school to make them accountable for their actions!

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