“So you’re setting us up for failure?”

Brian’s Note: I know this is a book blog. Please know that almost all of my posts will be book reviews, or some sort of book-related meme. However, this one is not. But this is my blog, and I’ll post if I want to. Post if I want to. Poooost if I want to. You would post, too, if it happened to you…

What happened was the title of this post. Those words came out of my student’s mouth. I think her next words were something along the lines of “What?” In between, I had said one simple word.


Now, this exchange took place in my Pre-Algebra class, where failure is a bit easier to define than in a literature class (if you’re curious: they were going to be attempting to find out how to find the a-value of a quadratic function in vertex form. They had never encountered quadratics before). But my response is the same in nearly all cases: “yes, I am setting you up for failure.”

Of course, there are some words omitted from my thought for effect. My thought in these cases goes something like “yes, I am setting you up for [short-term] failure [so that you may have long-term success].” But they don’t hear that. Even if I say it. They hear “failure” and get so scared, they’re actually happy they wore their brown pants that day.

That is how we are failing them.

I can’t imagine a world full of people afraid to fail. Fortunately, we won’t have that. But we might have a country full of them. Some of these students have been spoon-fed for so long, they don’t even know they can pick up their own utensil to eat. So when we do put something in front of them that they can salivate over (like the richness of If You Come Softly, which I am currently reading to some of my 8th graders), they don’t even know how to dig in. They’ve never had to try.

We must cut the decades-long umbilical cord. It’s doing nothing but keeping them in orbit, when they need to explore the future.

(Am I mixing enough metaphors for you yet?)

We learn by failing. Simple as that. We learn other ways, too, but none of them seem to be nearly as good as failing in a safe way, then figuring out how to succeed. We must continue coming up with creative ways for our students to fail. And then help them back up.

If you’re wondering, nobody was able to figure out how to find a. At least not a rule for how to find it in all cases. It’s unlikely that any will. But there are at least 3 theories going around. And they were talking about it across the table groupings, hearing people say “I’ve got it!” and then flocking over to them to hear their idea. Those ideas were wrong. They realized they were wrong. And then they went on to something else.

Also, all of my 15 students (yes, I know, I have a 15 student math class; you are correct to be jealous) had enough work done to receive full credit on the assignment. None of them figured out a, but they all did figure out everything else. I told them they could turn it in at the end of class, or they could take it home to continue working on it.

Only one was turned in.

Failure works.

3 thoughts on ““So you’re setting us up for failure?”

  1. I love this post. It reminds me of how lucky I was to have amazing teachers who didn’t just show me the way, but let me find the ways that didn’t work for myself. So much of life is failing and trying again – your students are lucky to have you!

  2. Brian, this is exactly why, upon entering my classroom on the first day of school, students reflect on this quote by JK Rowling:

    “Some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”

  3. Nice post. I have been teaching for 18 years in two different settings. HS with 11th and 12th grade honors English students and now as a 6-8 grade librarian. In both cases the kids want the formula/pattern/key to just plug and chug. They avoid discovery on their own because there is too much wiggle room for failure. They mainly have not minded a large quantity of work as long as they are guaranteed success after the time spent. “Figuring it out” is just not in their work ethic because they have been spoon fed so much. I often had to explain that I would never hang them out to dry (I like a nice metaphor as well.) but I would not just “tell them” everything. Good to hear about your experience.

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