This week, I’ve had two separate conversations about whether children should be given a failing grade in school and be held back or if it’s better to have their learning tailored to suit their competency level.

The school system in Ontario tends not to fail students and instead passes them along to the next grade. The main reason for this: students who are held back tend to have less of a chance of graduating compared to those that are not. Studies cite a decrease in confidence associated with the social stigma and psychological scarring that comes with failing.

Instead, students are put on Individualized Education Plans (IEP’s) which essentially tailor the learning of each student to their individual skill level.

For a long time, I’ve had mixed feelings when I listen to the debate of the failing grade vs. advancing at a modified pace. I’ve never been able to settle on a preference.

Recently, I realized I have been asking the wrong question.

This realization came after mulling over the two conversations I had this week on this exact subject. One of the conversations was with an elementary school teacher and the other was with a parent of an elementary school student.

The Argument for Advancement Despite not Meeting the Criteria

The teacher referred to research that supports not giving students a failing grade or allowing children to be held back. Although graduation rates are the main reason, it’s really the social stigma attached to being held back.

It’s beneficial for the child’s self-esteem and self-confidence to remain with their peers and continue to progress through the grades. Higher self-confidence translates into a higher chance of graduating.

In order for the child to continue learning and not fall further behind, they are given an IEP.

The teacher gave an example of a student in his grade 7 class who struggles with the written language. The class may be given the task of writing an essay but this child is instead given the task of writing a really good paragraph because his skill level is around the grade 5 level.

Come report card time, that child receives a B+ in writing in the grade 7 class but is really achieving that B+ for writing at a grade 5 level. The teacher marks to a different standard.

This child will continue to progress from grade to grade with his peers but not actually be performing at the same level. So essentially, they are held back for various components of learning.

It’s not an all or nothing thing like it used to be.

The Argument for Holding a Child Back

The other conversation I had was with a mother whose daughter is on an IEP. She was telling me how she wished her daughter had been held back a year.

She recognized that it may have been difficult for her daughter. However, her daughter would have been allowed to learn at a level more suited to her.

She would be further ahead in the long run once she graduated.

If she were to continue on to post-secondary education or the work force she would be held to the same standard as everyone else. The work would not likely be customized to suit her individual skill level.

The mother saw the IEP as a disadvantage and thought her daughter would be much more successful later in life if she was held back and able to take an extra year to slow down and fully understand the material.

What’s the Right Answer: A Failing Grade or an IEP?

These conversations this week have forced me to really think about what my opinion is on this subject.

The trouble is, I can actually understand both sides of the argument.

I often criticize public education because they attempt to make everyone the same. But I actually want to applaud the school system for recognizing that students are individuals and do not learn at the same rate.

With IEP’s, the differences are recognized and the teaching and standards are adjusted accordingly. They recognize that a child may excel in certain areas of the curriculum and shouldn’t be held back an entire grade. But they also know that more time and effort should be spent on other elements of the curriculum.

In the example of the child above who struggled with written language, the teacher said the child is absolutely amazing at verbal communication. Give that same child a presentation to do and they are at the top of their class.

However, I think that failure is a beneficial part of learning. In fact, I believe it to be essential.

If a child has spent their developmental years being sheltered from failure then they haven’t formed the emotional skills necessary to really use failure to their advantage.

Learning to use failure to better themselves is a skill they simply won’t possess because they haven’t been allowed to fail. They will have to learn this as an adult, which will be more difficult.

So what’s the right answer?

As I was reflecting on this last night and this morning it occurred to me that I was asking the wrong question. I was looking at it from the wrong angle.

Ask the Right Question

The school system doesn’t want to hold students back because they recognize the social stigma attached to failing. I’m going to challenge you to answer this question:

Why is there a social stigma attached to failure in the first place?

Why are we so embarrassed to fail?

If you listen to anyone who has been super successful talk about their path to success it is always littered with failure after failure after failure. Yet they had the mental and emotional capacity to persist and continue to believe in themselves even when others judged them and thought they were crazy.

Being afraid to fail often translates into being afraid to try.

And if we’re afraid to try then we can’t reach our full potential.

Nothing new would ever be invented. We wouldn’t discover or learn. We wouldn’t test theories or hypotheses. We would never try anything new because when we try there’s a risk of failure.

We would never dare to be great.

So instead of worrying about children failing at school we need to encourage our children to embrace failure and to learn from failure.

We need to teach them to take failure in stride. That failure can be their best friend if they allow it to teach them and guide them onto a path of greatness.

We need to teach them to believe in themselves wholeheartedly and that not believing in themselves is far greater a risk then believing in themselves and failing.

Ironically, I don’t believe we need to teach this to our children at all.

From what I see, they are born with this mindset and outlook on failure. I witness Hailey failing at various tasks every day with no sense of embarrassment or feelings of self-consciousness.

This means that being embarrassed and fear of failure is a learned behaviour.

Maybe all we have to do is support our children on their journey and encourage them through their failures. We should also do everything possible to prevent them from taking on our own beliefs that failure is embarrassing and should be avoided at all costs.

Because “only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly” (Robert Kennedy)

Photo by Celestine Chua