Should the word "failure" be used in education?

        One of the worst fears of a student, besides being called into the Principal’s office, is arguably the word “failure”, marked in stark red at the top of a test, like a fire-hot brand pointing accusingly at him or her. This seemingly tortuous word is employed in a few ways within the education system - it may be used as a concept to reflect the academic performance of a student, to grade a physical assignment or test, and even as a spoken criticism used by teachers on under performing students. Education’s purpose, broadly speaking, is to transfer knowledge to students, and a means to gauge the degree to which the student has gained knowledge is through these tests and assignments. The use of this term is important, nonetheless, as part of education - it is important as a grading standard to both students and the school, and also serves as a means for students to improve. Its eradication then, loses its benefits and also creates new problems for education systems.

Opponents of the term’s use would claim that its use as a concept is unfair, because there have been many instances where children have been cast aside as “failures”, though they grow up to succeed eventually. However, the concept of failure is an important one because it is an invariable constant in everyone’s lives - teaching children of it and getting them to experience it is the first step to exposing them to the real world, as one cannot hope to succeed in all their endeavours. Having said this, education which intends to teach students more than just facts but also skills, should incorporate skills such as the ability to deal with these failures in life. The blow to students whenever they encounter failure increases with time, because stakes increase - not only is a matter of a single assignment, but also rejection from job interviews, relationships and the like. Besides, the concept of failure does not vanish merely because the word is used - rather failure is something that permeates through all things competitive. Instead of fearing the word “failure”, the grade “E” becomes the replacement for it, which covertly refers to the failure of the student in that test. Having understood that failure cannot be avoided throughout life, dealing with it head-on by introducing the concept openly to students will teach students to confront their fears, and to improve themselves to prevent another “failure”. The concept of failure is something that must be embraced by students as life’s constant, and they must learn to deal with it appropriately - education cannot seek to hide these important concepts of life from students if it is to achieve its goals of transferring knowledge.

Critics would assert that grading assignments as a “failure” deals too great an emotional blow to growing children, and teachers should refrain from using the term within the educational structure. This would purportedly cause students’ academic performance to drop instead. Despite this claim, the importance of the grade supersedes the emotional loss. the value of the term is most evident in its meaning. Assignments and tests are meant to guide the process of education, because it serves as a measure of the proficiency of the student in a specific area. For instance, a biology test tests the ability of the student to synthesise information given to him about the human body, to interpret graphs, and be able to identify certain traits and symptoms. Hence, a student who is deemed a “failure” in the test has not succeeded in obtaining the skills deemed by his teachers to be important. Not only does this mean that labelling the work submitted by the student to be a “failure” is a fair decision, it also alerts the student to his insufficiency. Besides the school can better understand the groups of people that need help with a particular subject or topic from the grade given. Second, the emotional blow can be softened by different stakeholders. Parents are there to help children along the way, and encourage them to keep trying, as Winston Churchill would advocate - “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts”. Thus, using “failure” to grade a piece of work is fair and beneficial.

Some would continue to argue that teachers must act as a form of encouragement for their students, and should not label their students as failures, which would cause them to be shunned. Instead, they should give encouraging grades which would instill positive attitudes. While it is true that teachers should not be careless with criticisms, most teachers are responsible with their words, and more often than not the word is meant as a tool for incentivising greater effort from students for them to attain better performances. On the other hand, the elimination of the term “failure” only generates the problem of grade inflation, and decreased standards of education. To relieve themselves of the conundrum of having to give low scores, teachers would decide to reveal answers before a test, give more marks than is due, and award passing grades to even the lowest of scores. This is the reason why Nancy Gibbs, who recently ascended the role of Time’s editor, commented in an article that the American education system often gives students false hopes, as they expect to be competing for the top jobs with their “stellar” results, often the result of artificially inflated grades or extremely easy tests and examinations. Keeping students blind to the globe’s requirements is a huge problem especially in today’s hyper connected, globalised world that requires competition with not just the local students but also those from all around the world. Hence, the forced removal of the term “failure” causes success and achievement to lose its relative meaning, and instead only fosters false hopes that will harm students in the future.

It is as Samuel Beckett, Irish novelist, says “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Only when we acknowledge our failure, can we identify reasons for our insufficiency and resolve these problems. Education should guide us in this direction, for failure is an inescapable situation that will exist, whether or not we use it as a word on assignments or on students’ performance in general. Its absence, however, only generates falsified confidence in students, beckoning them towards failure once they leave school. Therefore, failure should be used in education, both taught as a concept and as a remark to push students towards bettering themselves. 

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Hi guys, I'm a student in Singapore, and this are some thoughts and essays I have written over the years.