In some schools, teachers are not allowed to fail students.
This no-fail (or social promotion) policy is quite a hot topic. Dr. John Smith’s letter to Ajarn back in 2013 addresses it, as does this more recent Op-Ed piece by Dr. Carrera cleverly titled ‘Failing to fail in Thailand’. Teachers argue that disallowing a failure grade undermines their ability to get on with the job of educating their students. Since students know they won’t (or can’t) fail, there is little extrinsic motivation for learning.
Failure – the good and the bad
Let’s start by admitting that failure can be bad. There are situations where failure may be a really serious problem. In skydiving, for instance. Or a knife fight. A colonoscopy, perhaps. We may want to think that surgeons don’t fail, but they sometimes do. A big fat ‘F’ on a report card causes strife at home, stigmatizes the learner, and comes with a raft of negative connotations.
However, failure isn’t always a problem. In bodybuilding, particularly in hypertrophy training, failure can be a goal. Lifting to failure sets off a complicated cascade of physiological responses which leads to muscle growth. In the gym, you want failure!
Failure is good for learning, too. Anyone learning a new skill – wake boarding, for instance - is destined for a heap of amusing fails, which might be embarrassing but are valuable (even crucial) for eventual mastery. I have loads of personal examples of this in action, and I have no doubt you do, too.
Failure is also an integral part of classroom learning. One example of the link between failure and learning is The Interleaving Effect. In school schedules, students learn topics in blocks. We teach the past simple, for instance, and then give students blocks of exercises to practice past simple verbs. Then they toddle off to meet the math teacher, who gives them blocks of problems all involving binomial equations.
Interleaving involves the switching between (or jumbling up of) topics, so that learners need to focus on more than one at a time. For instance, we could give students exercises which require them to switch between present and past tenses rather than focusing only on one at a time. They must then not only convert verbs to the past, but also consider when to make the verb change.
Interleaving increases cognitive flexibility and leads to deeper learning. During the learning phase in interleaving, however, students are more likely to make mistakes (and get a lower score) as they switch between domains. Students learning through blocking perform better. When students are tested later though, those who interleave outperform those who block. So it is, then, that interleaving leads to failure at first but success later. Listen to this episode of The Learning Scientists podcast for more about interleaving.
Learning and failure
There are lessons for us here. One is that when students are doing well it doesn’t necessarily mean learning is optimized. It could mean the material is too easy, or too predictable. Another is that when students are failing, they may well be building pathways to future success.
Since failure is such an integral part of learning and teaching, what do we do with schools’ (and parents’ and children’s) fear of it?
To take the side of the school for a moment, teachers who absolutely insist on failing students are a source of concern. Assigning failure grades can easily devolve into a threat-punishment loop with teachers who are unable to manage their classrooms. Successful teachers, schools may argue, engage in interventions with students edging towards failure before it is too late, and therefore have no need for the F word. Besides, surely a teacher’s job is to teach the students so they don’t fail? Successful teaching = successful learning = no failure.
This particular argument might be riddled with holes, but it is put forward by people with power. So the no-fail policy marches briskly on.
There is a way, however, for teachers to have it both ways. We can both highlight students’ weaknesses and deficiencies to encourage learning, and highlight strengths and successes to ensure good grades. This magic is possible when we make the distinction between formative and summative assessment.
Formative assessments are low-stakes, in-class tasks and activities that give students feedback on what they are getting right and wrong. Because formative assessment happens during the term, there is time to address areas of concern. We all know that language learning is a messy and stressful affair. We learn things, forget them, need to relearn them, get confused with rules and so on. These formative assessments give some idea of where students are in this crazy process without making the errors a permanent record of their ability. They tell us how students have tried to make sense of the language, and what additional input they need.
Formative assessments may be an impromptu quiz, or entry and exit tickets. As an example, to see how my students are doing with their learning of past tense verbs, I can give a quick quiz, a spelling test of past tense verbs, or ask students to write the ending of a ghost story. For each, I might assign scores of some sort, and perhaps try to push the students to the point where they start making mistakes. In this way I can see where individuals are at in their learning and find a way to intervene with students who are below a minimum threshold (aka failing).
Any failure to achieve good scores on these formative assessments is not a major concern: because they are low-stakes and carry minimal weighting, they are unlikely to be given to parents, and are not important enough to puncture students’ self-esteem.
Summative assessments are those huge exams at the end of the term that ‘summarize’ performance. Because these are done at the end of the learning process, there is no opportunity for students to get feedback on them: they often just get a number. Just a number, but a number that leads to all the fuss between teachers and schools (and parents and children and school boards and policy makers).
Ideally, we would like numbers in our summative assessments that indicate success: which is possible after all those opportunities to fail in the formative assessments. It’s like a concert or theatre production with an audience. We need to show off our skills to the crowd, and all will go well because we practiced and failed beforehand.
Steve has been a teacher and teacher trainer for over 30 years, and is currently a lecturer on the Master’s in TESOL program at King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi in Bangkok.