Failure motivates. Well, to be more accurate, fear of failure motivates. We live in a society in which the Lombardi motto ‘winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing’ drives athletes towards excellence and has been often quoted, and subsequently adopted, in the business world as well. Coming in second is now viewed, in the words of comic Jerry Seinfeld, as being ‘the first loser’, making the thought of failure to win a distasteful, if not outright scary, prospect.
Schools as well have certainly bought into the failure motivates philosophy. While they certainly seek to motivate by awarding achievement, the proverbial carrot, they also use the fear of failure, the proverbial stick, as a tool in which they hope to strongly encourage academic progress. The question is, does it work?
Over 30 years in the classroom has revealed to me a painful truth, that kids who fail usually continue to do so over and over. The threat of failure almost never urges them on to succeed. In fact, I would argue, the possibility of failure actually promotes failure! Failure it seems, is not really the ‘great motivator’ but, in reality, the ‘great escape’.
A child who struggles to achieve may do so for numerous reasons. And while those reasons may range from learning challenges to parenting failures, and everything and anything in between, the one constant is that the prospect of failing does not change those realities. What failure does do is provide the child with a way out. After all, once they fail they get to move on. Failure is the sunset clause to an academic contract gone bad.
Failure offers the struggling student an option other than success. Schools are hurting their students’ chances for success by accepting anything less than that success. In the words of educator Doug Reeves, “the only punishment for not doing the work should be: do the work!” We must thus reframe our discussion with our students, removing the threat of failure, and clarifying our demand that they succeed.