Failure to fail

19 March 2015
19 Mar 2015
West Lafayette, IN
7 mins

Once upon a time a friend threw me a riddle, “What would you do if you couldn’t fail at anything in the world?” I would of course reply, “Try to fail,” as was customary for a typical self-absorbed innocent kid who didn’t know any better. The idea of failing to fail at something still throws me for a loop every time I think too much about it, but I think it might just be a mindset shift needed to make school a little more bearable and a lot more productive. Hear me out:

Any soul who’s ever taken a test knows memorizing the facts and the equations down to the letter during the passing period before an exam starts is almost the only sure-fire way to guarantee that it doesn’t stay with you long-term. If you want to learn anything, brute-forcing it into your brain for a test is probably – forgive me, I don’t have the science to back it up – the worst possible approach. Because learning is not a process by which facts are piled sky-high in our magical compartments in our brains, but a process in which information becomes a part of our understanding that connects the dots in our minds, so that hopefully they will become of some sort of use in our future. As any LEGO enthusiast will explain to you, piling pieces upon pieces on top of one another with no connection in the middle is asking for disaster to occur when time comes to actually make use of what you’ve ended up with. And all this is the typical argument against standardized tests – bubble-in sheets, memorization, and useless facts are of no use – and those arguments are all valid, but they’re also overused beyond reason and supposedly why essay tests exist*. So I’m not going to argue today against standardized testing, because they have their place and utility, and essay and other open-ended tests do look for something more. Instead, I want to argue against the idea of tests in general, as they stand today.

After any academic test, you have two possible outcomes**: you either passed – congratulations, you may now move on to study for another test of equal frustration and lack of practicality, or you fail – yes-you-failed-now-move-your-failure-butt-over-to-the-next-chapter fail. I think this kind of a binary logic against learning is, if not sheer stupidity, destructive to the culture of education. Pass-or-Fail grades are the outcome and feedback provided by tests, and many people will argue that the purposes of a test are largely twofold: one, to provide a way of feedback so that the teacher may reflect his or her teaching on what the students understand or fail to understand; and two, to provide a guidance for teachers, a curriculum, if you will, that standardizes for everyone in a region what they should know in a certain subject field to “graduate”. The idea of the first goal is that in cases where some students have trouble understanding a concept***, the test will tell the teacher where those areas are, and allow him or her to re-cover that topic for better understanding. And this appears to be a genuinely good cause on its face, because many teachers do really take advantage of this. But ultimately, the class needs to move onto the next chapter (because guess what? The next test is coming up), and if you’re still having problems with that idea, you’ll just have to keep that in the back of your head and move on with the rest. The reality is that I’ve seen too many people dragged along after missing several questions on the test because of lack of understanding, because the class moved on. And then they get caught once more in the finals, and that’s the end of the story. In reality, the problem is that tests function less as a way of feedback and more as a way of acknowledgement, showing that the class needs more time with something but the next test alerting the class to move on to the next chapter nonetheless. As for the second goal of tests, to provide a curriculum, this perpetuates “teaching to the test” in too many cases. And although teaching to the test provides some fantastic academic results (my years in the Korean academic system attests to this), it is an unfortunate fact of the world that getting a job, economic success, living a satisfactory life, and anything else that matters beyond the short academic years is just a bit more complex to manage than picking one out of four choices, one of which is a “none of the above”. In short, my point is that tests do little to achieve what they were designed for, which is to provide useful feedback and guidance for classes.

By no means am I suggesting that we ought to scrap the notion of tests altogether. But I am suggesting that we change the way we think about tests, from end-of-the-chapter evaluations to one that functions in a way similar to actual feedback. What we need, I think, is the failure to fail. Specifically, we need an academic attitude that refuses to let any student fail. If a student fails, or does poorly on, a “test”, the next logical move should not be to correct it and then move on to the next chapter, but to continue studying that idea until he no longer “fails” to understand that idea. Currently, we’re stuck in a system that views tests and report cards much like a resume – “He knows this but doesn’t understand that, and he’s also having some problems with this other thing”. But if we want to use tests as a way of providing useful feedback, as they were designed to be, this resume approach has to give way to a to-do list mindset. A report card of an A, a B, and a D+ is not an indication that the owner has failed one of the three classes, but that he still needs to complete learning ideas covered in the third class, until he can end up with a solid A, B+, and a B. In any area of the world outside the academia, the thought of moving past an evaluation with a flaw is absurd. If Apple tried its hand at making an iPhone 6 and found that it wasn’t quite up to their standards, it would be beyond ridiculous to say “Oh, we messed that one up. Let’s move on to making the Watch now instead.” That would be nothing short of utter stupidity, and a suicidal act for the company. If NASA invested three years into designing a spacecraft that failed because of a minor defect, to move on to its next big project and leave the previous one as a failure would be nonsensical, if not completely laughable. And yet, in schools we encounter this situation too often, moving on with failed grades and unsatisfactory test results, and we consider that flawed status quo the way it should be.

Today’s idea of failure on a test is less a feedback and more the result of a time bomb attached to insufficient time limits, and that mindset stands in the way of tests functioning as valuable tools they can be. For that unfortunate reality to shift, tests should not be where learning ends but where it continues, because nothing of value we have today was created from someone’s satisfaction with insufficient progress. It’s only through people’s failure to let projects fail that we can enjoy innovations like smartphones and the Internet, as well as social innovations like improving racial equality and continuing gender identity debates, and it is only sensible that we attack the idea of education we hold so dearly to our hearts with the same vigor and attitude.

* though the SAT seems to think the ability to explain something with words is not a critical enough skill to be a part of the core exams

** It’s like the Schroedinger’s Cat of public education – you’re either of the two outcomes, but unless you check your grades, nobody has to know about it

*** Although statistically it’s much more likely that it’s just a failure to memorize that particular fact in the massive cram session five minutes before

The reflection bias

Behind invisible bars

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