Failure Should Be a Graduation Requirement


Every university and high-school student should be required to fail one course before graduating.

It’s easy to focus on achievement, and reward those who meet (or exceed) expectations of performance.  Our school system feeds its success obsession using standardized tests, pass rates, and college admissions as a measurement of its effectiveness.

The problem is that many of the highest achievers graduate without ever being challenged.  They never learn how to take risks and fail.

Failure Hitting the Ground

The pressure to have high pass rates have made it tough to actually fail in Ontario high schools.  I’m not saying we should celebrate the failure to show up to class, or failure from a total lack of effort.

Real failure is about trying your hardest, and still not making it.

If every student were challenged to that level, we’d have the opportunity to teach real life lessons.  How to ask for help.  How to come to terms with your weaknesses.  How to push on when you feel like giving up.

With admission averages to many competitive Ontario university programs continuing the “upward spiral” that began over a decade ago, it’s no wonder students are allergic to failure.

At my alma mater, the University of Waterloo, you only have a 40% chance of receiving an admission offer to civil, mechanical, or software engineering if your high-school grade point average (GPA) is between 85 and 90%.  If your GPA is between 91 and 95%, the probability of being admitted jumps to 85%.

I’m not an engineer, and frankly, I would have never been able to make into a program at Waterloo if I had applied.  Even with such high admission averages, Waterloo was failing an average of 20% of its first-year engineering classes.  This bothered people so much they suggested making changes to the first-year curriculum in 2010.

As a residence don for 1st year engineers at Waterloo, I witnessed first-hand what failure would do to some of those 18-year olds.  Adult responsibility for their own learning hit many of them like a truck.  Some reacted by doubling down and studying seriously for the first time in their lives.  Others escaped into virtual worlds online.

For those of us who overcame it, failure was the best lesson of our lives.  My first lesson with failure didn’t come until I took a Japanese course for credit, and was blown out of the water by classmates who had studied it as a second language in Hong Kong and China.  Failing test after test taught me how to push myself harder, to ask for help, and how to take responsibility for something marked with the letter “F.”

If every school required students to fail at least one course, it would make failing okay.  Students would be encouraged to take risks, and get seriously challenged without the risk of their average slipping to an unacceptable 89%.

To have the F count as course credit, the student should have to (1) reflect on why the failure happened, (2) make a plan to overcome it by using all the resources at their disposal, (3) develop a “plan B” if their first plan doesn’t work, (4) follow through with the plan, and (5) reflect on the experience.

What do you think?  Would this ever work?  Would this have enriched your overall experience in school, or should we wait until people graduate before they’re allowed to fail?

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