Eugene F. "Gene" Kranz, provided by ...
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The tension hangs in the air like wet snow on tree branches. Flight Director Gene Kranz listens as his team tells him the command module does not have enough air or power to return to Earth. In this scene from the movie Apollo 13, Ed Harris, playing Kranz, utters the now-famous line verbalizing what the team—and the audience—felt: “Failure is not an option!” (Kranz, by the way, never actually said those words, though he did borrow them for the title of his memoir.)

The Apollo 13 astronauts of course made it back safely, and the intense search for solutions to impossible problems still makes a riveting story.

In public education today it often seems like we’re living this Hollywood scene. Federal policy mandates that five years from now, one hundred percent of our children will meet grade level standards in reading and math. Failure is not an option. And why not? If you believe that all children can learn (and I do), what’s wrong with setting high expectations for achievement and doing everything we can to see that students meet those expectations?

There is plenty of debate about that very question, but that isn’t my focus here. What concerns me is how the expectation of success and achievement can get translated at the classroom level. I frequently see this idea that failure is not an option applied to daily assignments and tests. Teachers have no-tolerance policies about missed homework, for example, or grading scales that doom students who do not pass every test.

This is particularly evident with gifted students. I often hear both parents and students say that since these students are so capable, any grade below a certain level is unacceptable and likely means the student is simply being lazy. The response is often punitive, requiring extra “make up” work or retests for partial credit.

It’s easy to forget that gifted students may have the ability to learn quickly and comprehend at a deep, sophisticated level that other students don’t, but this doesn’t mean they already know everything or can do everything without instruction and guidance.

It also doesn’t mean that a lack of success automatically means a lack of effort. Young gifted children are used to success. Things come easily to them, often automatically, and they learn rapidly without even realizing they are learning. Without fail, though, every child hits a point where content is beyond their ability to absorb instantly, and they need to begin applying conscious thought and systematic effort to their learning.

Most children reach this point early in life, often before school starts. They find out that sometimes things don’t go right the first time, and they develop ways to cope with it, persist, and grow.

But gifted students may not reach that point until later, sometimes not until middle or even high school. When they finally do hit the wall, they often have no concept of what has happened, and they don’t know how to respond.

It’s important for teachers to teach all students, and especially the highly able ones, how to fail successfully.

If you have made mistakes, there is always another chance for you. You may have a fresh start any moment you choose, for this thing we call “failure” is not the falling down, but the staying down. (Mary Pickford)

I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life and that is why I succeed. (Michael Jordan)

We can’t afford any longer to treat failure like an end. Instead, we need to rethink it and consider it a beginning. I’ve written before about how to deal with perfectionism, and those suggestions apply here as well. Here are a few other specific things that teachers can do to create an environment that nurtures learning instead of stifling it:

  • Redefine the word “mistake.” In your classroom, a mistake should always be an opportunity for growth and learning, never a failure. Which naturally leads to
  • Give second (and third and fourth) chances. Any student who does not achieve at the expected level should not be labeled as lazy or a failure. Instead, give them the opportunity to relearn and try again. School should be the one place where it is completely safe to mess up over and over until you can get it right.
  • Celebrate growth. Instead of focusing only on accomplishment, give every student the opportunity to experience the pleasure of success by redefining it. Progress should be considered success, not just rising above a target level.
  • Reward effort. Giving as much (if not more) attention to students who work hard and take risks as to those who demonstrate more traditional types of success, we send the message that our classrooms are a place for working and trying, not just for accomplishment.
  • Model failure. By showing students how to deal with times they don’t meet their goals or expectations, we give them tools to cope when it happens to them. We also let them see that mistakes and failure are a normal part of life.
  • Set students up to fail sometimes. Especially with gifted children, there will be times that the more important lesson is how to recover from failure rather than to experience success. Set students up to fail by giving them a task they do not have the skill or knowledge to complete. Then help them pick themselves up, think about what happened, determine what they need to do to succeed, and walk them through that recovery process.

Try these in your classroom this year. Create a different atmosphere and see what happens to attitudes and learning.

Update: Thanks to Kevin Washburn who pointed me via Twitter to this post he wrote recently which summarizes research supporting these ideas.

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