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“Failure is NOT an Option” Susan Millican Georgia College and State University EdS Leadership 2009
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“Failure is NOT an Option” Every year teachers and students go to battle over “grades.” Teachers proclaim that students will not do the work unless you put a grade on it. Students only look to see “what they made” when papers are handed back, and many students seem complacent about the “0” they received for not turning in anything. When a student asks if they can make up the work, teachers either tell them: “No, you missed the deadline and you must learn responsibility.” or “Yes, but it will only be worth 80% of the original possible points/grade.” Students complain that they tried to do the work but the teacher “wouldn’t let them, or wouldn’t count all the points,” so that is why they fail. Meanwhile, teachers recite the age old adage: “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make them drink.” Even in light of NCLB, the battle continues. After 25 years of struggling with this mental model and watching Apollo 13 way too many times, I concluded that while we couldn’t “make the horse drink” then there must be a way to “make the horse thirsty.” The catalyst for the shift in my mental model came from a scene in Apollo 13. The commander tells all the engineers what the problem is along with the limited materials and tools they must use to solve the problem to get their men home safely. He concludes by saying, gentlemen “Failure is NOT an option!” Wow! What if students and teachers began to see education in this light? That is when I decided to adopt this quote as the new mental model for myself and my students. Years earlier I had already changed many of my grading strategies. I would not only allow but encourage “do-overs” if a student’s grade was not what they wanted it to be. I was the only teacher that would allow them to resubmit the work and receive 100% credit, and this grade would replace the old grade, no matter how late the work. Needless to say, this was not the most popular strategy among my colleagues. Nevertheless, I had decided it was my job to educate and if students were willing to do the work, then why should I stop the learning just because of a deadline? I figured they would learn responsibility as they matured. If they were not prepared with a sound knowledge base, then it didn’t matter how responsible they were, they were not going to be as successful in college or life!
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Now I just need to figure out why students were not taking advantage of such a wonderful and new grading strategy. I decided to utilize a theme to reinforce this new strategy and chose to adopt the Apollo 13 theme with an addition: “Failure is NOT an Option AND mediocrity is NOT the standard.” The first day of each semester I would share this new found theme with my students. I would explain that not only would they have “do-overs” if their work was mediocre or less, they would receive an incomplete (INC) and their report cards/progress reports would NOT show an average. If they had an INC, parents were contacted to set up a time for their child to come in before or after school to make up the work. Even if they had turned in the work and made a 70 on it, they received an INC until the work was completed above their mediocre level. After the first progress report, 47% of my students received an INC and no average was given on their report. To my surprise, I received all progress reports back signed by parents with a date their child would come in to complete the work. The next progress report reflected that the students had made up the work and all but one student had an A average in class. The next progress reports there were only 25% that had an INC. At first it was 44%. However, when grades were posted, 13 of the students took the initiative to make up the work so they would not have show their parents an INC. At the end of the term, 97% of the students passed the class. The failures were due to lack of parental support and involvement along with attendance. After reviewing this data, I wondered what was different. Was it the strategies or the new theme? I found my answer one day when I had a student about half way through a semester ask me if it was too late to get a schedule change. I asked him why and he replied: “Because I can’t do this.” As I started to remind him that he could and that “Failure was NOT an option” he interrupted me and said: “Yes, failure is an option. This is too hard.” Sticking to my guns, I reiterated that he knew I would not allow him to fail and he replied: “That’s just it! You stay on us until we get it right and won’t let us fail!” This is when I knew I had truly made a difference. I realized it was not because of the strategies I used but because their mental model had shifted
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away from grades. Students now realized and accepted “Failure was NOT an option and mediocrity was NOT the standard!” Students no longer look for “what they made;” they look for what they need to do to make it above mediocrity. They work harder to get it right the first time. I continue to show Apollo 13 and when my favorite scene is shown and the commander says: “Failure is not an option,” students continue to groan and say: “Oh no! Not again!” While I see students are growing in knowledge as they strive to produce work above mediocrity, I now know it is not because of new strategies. I see their mental model has shifted from looking for grades to reaching their potential. Additionally, I see they are becoming more responsible as their thirst for success has been increased!