Failure is a parasite. On impressionable cerebral foundations, failure is an autocratic instructor. In school, its instruction dictates students’ progression. Students evolve to accommodate and avoid failure–through grades, discussion, and instruction–so that fear of imperfection becomes the authority, ultimately stagnating the perception of what’s possible.
Students are taught a static understanding of the future: right or wrong. One or the other. On a test, we bubble in the scantron. Fill in the required bubble? You’re right. Correct. And any of the others? Wrong. A failed question. Failure.
That sentiment translates to the classroom. Teachers ask questions. What if our answer is not what is desired? Doesn’t check the right box? Bubble the right answer? Then we’re wrong. That’s a failure.
Fear of failure leeches into and subverts our perception of the future. It takes life, a vast and ample canvas of uncharted avenues, and creates a tunnel, a fork in the road, defined by its confines and borders and boundaries not to be crossed.
Who determines right and wrong? In math, 2 + 2 will always be 4. But when students fear failure, answers are not as clear. They are not as clear because students question their thinking. Answers become yet another exposure to vulnerability. Students are enveloped in self-doubt and they hide their voices, inundated by inauspicious presumption.
Accordingly, when questions are proposed that require personal revelation and discovery, fear creates mental blocks. Fear makes us too scared to try. Fear creates the foundation for failure, and failure feeds fear. Both are products of an interminable paradox.
Often, embarrassment is failure’s undesired acolyte. It emerges when students project an idea into a pocket of discussion, and the first words that follow are “well, not exactly, no.” Wrong. Failure.
We begin to believe that the threat of failure is larger than the prospect of success. It becomes a numbers game we assume ourselves destined to lose. Ambition is quickly dispelled.
Do teach us to make respectable, astute conclusions; that is our preparation for beyond high school. But don’t assume we will have expected conclusions. Students need the encouragement of thinking, not prompting of answers. We need an infrastructure of support and direction rather than assertive correction.
We arrive at the question of how the institution responsible for our adolescent development can preserve ambition. The answer: by cultivating curiosity. Why are we learning what we are learning? What is the prevalence, the meaning? How can a short chemistry lab espouse our understanding of modern medicine? Let’s go beyond the equations. How does knowledge of Alexander Hamilton’s First National Bank give insight into our country’s national economic agenda? Let’s go beyond the names and dates. Let’s elevate and praise spirit and intrigue. We do not require drilling worksheets, but discussion. We do not need facilitation, but support. We do not just want the grades; we want interest, want perspective, and a deeper understanding than we could get in any textbook or youtube video or supplemented education. We want to be able to be wrong and be encouraged and guided. We want more than failure. We want fearless futures.