Why failure needs to be normalised

For long, schools have taught us that “failure is the stepping stone for success.” It is time they started practising what they preach.

Source: Medium

I recently came across this article on how poor Indian education is, after it was shared by many of my colleagues at Xamcheck. Not to toot my own horn, but it reiterates (with statistics) what I wrote earlier about education in India being about amassing degrees rather than employability and skills.

At Xamcheck, one of our core beliefs about education is that anyone with the right information in the right form can impart it and imbibe it. We also believe that exams or their results must never be the primary focus of education.

However, as Prof Rohit Dhankar points out in his opinion here, despite the idea of exams as an ill being around for a century, it still continues to dominate the education scene. He points out one major reason for this being — “the inconsistency between the prevailing grade-wise curriculum and school structure on the one hand and the idea of progress on the learning continuum inherent in the CCE on the other.” This, once again, makes a strong case for the gurukulas.

His most compelling point, however, is that India being ‘a caste-based and a strictly hierarchical society’, looks to education to both ‘maintain the old hierarchy and challenge it’. The result is that education then becomes a means to best your neighbours— and it is only possible to do that if success in education were measured by tests and results and, ultimately, degrees piled up and pay packages drawn.

As part of our work, my colleagues and I visit client schools in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Maharashtra. The purpose of these visits is to familiarise the teachers with our products and services and make the adoption of our material in these schools a seamless and painless integration.

The overarching focus across these schools has, without exception, been test scores. The school administrators, the teachers, the parents — all look at the end goal of a school education and a measure of the effectiveness of teaching and learning to be a flawless test score.

A student who scores well is considered a ‘bright’ student, whereas one who fails to score sufficiently is a ‘dull’ or a ‘weak’ student. Even if one brushes aside this choice of words as just semantics, it is not difficult to draw a parallel between what is being propagated to the students and parents here and what Dr Carol Dweck terms the ‘fixed mindset’. The teachers and school administrators themselves are victims of the fixed mindset — the idea that one’s ability is constant, instead of malleable.

The biggest problem with having a fixed mindset in a place of learning is that failure becomes taboo. And when failure is taboo, learning cannot happen.

Growth and learning can only happen when failure and discomfort are normalised.

10 Growth Mindset Statements

Some of my earliest memories of school are of my cousin, who was also in my class. She’s a year older than I am, and a great deal more diligent. When we’d come back from school each day, she would religiously finish her home work and then she would cry and worry for me (bless her kind soul!) that I didn’t do mine. And during each exam, when I would panic that I didn’t know the answers, she would look at my terror-stricken face helplessly. Too soon, it was all forgotten. I’d managed to make it through, and we moved on to the next class.

Soon after, we had to move away to another town, and I no longer had the comfort of having her kind companionship in my class. Maybe her absence made me imbibe more of her qualities — but I learnt to study and practice by myself. Slowly, as I moved through middle school and entered high school, I became one of the ‘bright’ students — the ones teachers paid special attention to.

I’ve always loved attention, but even I knew when the attention felt wrong — it felt wrong when the teachers looked at me like a prize that was given to them as a result of their hard work, it felt wrong when they cared less about the students who really needed their attention in favour of doing something extra for me.

It felt absolutely rotten that I was being considered worthy just because my test scores were above a certain mark.

It gave all students the impression that you were only worthy if you did well in school — but wasn’t that the point of coming to school? — that you’d be taught and treated all the same?

During my preparation for IITJEE, I failed several tests. It was two years of failure fest — I failed the FIITJEE entrance test, I failed on several weekly tests, I failed several tests in the Brilliant Test Series I attempted every few months — but nobody ever seemed to consider this ‘failing’.

Failing here was considered normal — even expected. You got valuable feedback after each test. It was part of the process — stumbling, learning, growing, and getting better after each instance.

The very first time I considered that I ‘failed’ was when I got an ‘F’ grade in Mechanics in my first year at college. Suddenly, nobody looked at this part of the growth process. My mother told me an IITian colleague of hers said that most students in IITs didn’t study ahead for exams, but still pulled through at the last minute — and that I must not have prepared even a little, which was why I failed.

I felt really small. I was crushed by the shame of having failed, the shame of having disappointed my parents by not being their perfect daughter with the perfect As.

What is most insidious about this idea of failure is that life is supposed to be all success and no failure — and that it’s supposed to be easy and breezy.

We can do hard things

And once you learn to recognise that, you start seeing the signs everywhere.

Parents want school teachers to give their children quick and easy points to remember during revision; teachers are scared to hell about letting their students attempt school tests that are set by Xamcheck, so they want certainty — it’s not enough to know the syllabus, they want a detailed blueprint that tells them which kind of question is to be expected from a particular topic and how many marks are allocated to each topic and so on.

As grown-ups we want to learn so many things — to play the guitar, to bake, to write — and we only want quick and easy fixes, nothing that takes time, nothing that involves discomfort, only guaranteed success.

There are increasing amounts of reported incidents about how doctoral and post-doctoral students at schools of higher education and research institutes face depression, suicidal tendencies, and other mental health related challenges. Research is an especially tough minefield as it involves a lot of uncertainty and risk. There is a pressing need for improvement in the areas of approachability, communication, and mental health.

At a recent school visit, a school teacher related a personal story about how when she was really young, she was asked to carry a heavy bag. Though she knew it was beyond her ability, she never said no. She replied that she’d carry it, but when she became a little bigger. From the stories of her classroom she narrated, it was evident she believed there is nothing one cannot achieve with patience, practice, and the right guidance.

For long, schools have taught us that “failure is the stepping stone for success.” It is time they started practising what they preach.

There is an urgent necessity for teachers and parents to trust and believe in the abilities of their children. They should share their own stories of failure, uncertainty, and self-doubt.

I am reminded of Dr Brené Brown’s statement to her class (paraphrased): “If you aren’t experiencing discomfort, I’m not teaching and you’re not learning.”

The importance of encouraging this kind of vulnerability, of talking about shame, and of removing the stigma around failure cannot be overstated enough.