Banishing the ‘F-word’

Paula Hodges, retired Punahou administrator

Having worked as a high school teacher and school administrator for almost 50 years, I know that what I am about to propose will sound heretical in some educational circles. I think we should banish the use of the word “failure” and “fail forward” (attributed to author and speaker John Calvin Maxwell) from our teaching vocabulary when we are trying to persuade students to learn from their mistakes.

The following definitions of “failure” and “fail” are from an online dictionary:

Failure: lack of success, an unsuccessful person; a lack or deficiency of a desirable quality; the action or state of not functioning

Fail: behave in a way contrary to hopes or expectations by not doing something; become weaker or of poorer quality; die away; be lacking or insufficient when needed or expected

To me, fail and failure connote a finality.

When was the last time you saw joy on a child’s face when she was called a failure? Now, I know that teachers would never call a child a failure, at least not the ones I know. And parenting advice tells us to name an action as “bad” and not the child, so rather than “bad boy,” you might say, “you did a bad thing.” In my experience, however, teenagers believe in and identify with labels.Reflective teachers know that what they say and what a child hears may be wildly different from each other.

Teenagers are all about developing their identity – Who am I? Where do I fit in? What do people think of me? They already strongly identify their school-selves with their grades – I’m an A, B, C student or an F (for failure.) Students know grades matter, even when we tell them that they don’t.

Students in honors classes are called “honors kids” – special students worthy of honor, distinction, respect and the concomitant pressures of success. I suspect that most students in non-honors courses do not think of themselves as having the qualities of “honors kids.” They probably don’t even expect their teachers to consider them as honors material. No matter how much we want to think that the words and labels we use don’t matter that much, they matter enormously.

Much of my education has been in the sciences. I never remember a time when I was told by my teachers that my experiment was a failure. Yes, I made mistakes – something didn’t work the way I had expected, or the outcome was not what I had planned. I remember frustration and disappointment, but I never felt the finality of a failure. Instead, I felt curious. Why didn’t the experiment (or in teaching, the lesson) work? What mistakes had I made? I, as well as my teachers and colleagues, asked those questions in order to help me move forward.

I propose a change of language – banish “failures” and “learn from failure” and offer students opportunities to rethink. The educational connotation is the same, but the words are very different. Failure seems final. Rethinking makes me curious to know, what do I do now? What are my next steps? What worked? What didn’t work? What could I have done differently? and why?

A psychologist once told me that teenagers (perhaps all people) want to control outcomes as much as possible, yet we encourage students to take risks and push themselves beyond what is comfortable. I support challenging students appropriately, but “failing” is often too risky for most students. I suggest that we, students and teachers, modify our approach using different language, offering opportunities to rethink our processes and methodologies, becoming expert in the art of questioning. Teaching discerning thinking is not easy. Perhaps intellectual risk-taking is the hardest habit of mind to cultivate, but teachers have never been deterred by what is difficult.

Children are entrusted to us for the opportunity to become, as Punahou’s mission says, “lifelong learners,” and our job is to care for them, provide proper learning and living environments, use clear language and help them in their journey. Children don’t need any more labels.