Moving at the Speed of Creativity by Wesley Fryer

Permission to fail

I’ve got high schools on my mind.

A high school teacher told me recently that her school allows students to try harder courses than they normally might take. For example, students might sign up for an Honors English class instead of a regular English class or an AP Government class instead of a normal Government class. These are big issues in secondary schools: who gets to take advanced / Honors / AP courses, who gets to be exposed to rigorous course content, and who doesn’t. At first I thought that this was great, that here’s a school that’s trying to open up learning opportunities for students. But then my back brain registered how she talked about the school policy. She said that the school gives students “permission to fail.” And that’s when it all fell apart for me.

Permission to fail. What a horribly sad and depressing term. Does a permission to fail policy recognize that these kids might need a little extra support to be successful or does it simply thrust them into the challenging learning environment and say, “Good luck!”? Is a permission to fail policy premised on student success or on a belief that “these kids really can’t do the work but we’ll let them try because it looks and feels good” (to us, to parents, to the public)? Perceptions and beliefs shape reality. Will a permission to fail policy ever result in large numbers of successful students?

I left that school wishing it had a permission to succeed policy.

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4 responses to “Permission to fail”

  1. Adri Avatar

    Interesting that the teacher used the phrase “permission to fail”.

    I’m several years removed from high school — but I attended HS in 2 states. In one state I didn’t make the overall grades to be able to enroll in the advanced classes — I talked with the teachers and explained how I wanted the advance content because the other bored me — but no one would listen. *sigh*

    When I moved to another state 1/2 through high school I was allowed to enroll in the advanced classes because they had a “permission to fail/succeed” policy. I guess luckily for me — my faith in the advanced content paid off — I succeeded in the classes. At times I may have struggled but I became a better HS student, and eventually college student, because I was given the opportunity to take control of my educational future — and appreciated the challenge and opportunity to think about the curriculum differently. (Or perhaps I just had good teachers) 😉

    It’s very unfortunate the teacher makes the assumption the kids will fail — however it may indicate that she’s never been in a position to push herself to the limits and succeed regardless of what the system assumes of you.

  2. Catrina Avatar

    In high school, whenever I wanted to take an honors or AP class, I had to take a test. It would’ve been a lot less time-consuming to just sign up.

    I think if my school had allowed a “permission to fail” policy, I would’ve blamed myself for not understanding class lessons – maybe to the point of not asking the teacher for help.

    But I agree that a “permission to succeed” policy would be a much more beneficial and positive means to enable students to access more rigorous courses. It would encourage students to push themselves without the presumption of failure.

  3. TK Avatar

    Interesting that you decide that the school has a “permission to fail” policy based on that criteria alone. I see your point, but I’m not sure if I agree with you.
    Students, especially high school students are learning and essentially are being prepared for college. For a student to decide for themselves that they are in need of a challenge academically is an achievement in itself. The terms honors and AP imply that a more rigorous work load will be implemented in the class; students are not naive to the differences in honors/AP versus “regular” courses.
    I think it is important to give the school, the teachers and the students credit for this ambition. First, the school is, essentially allowing students to make choices regarding their future education. I believe this is a stride in education- why do we assume we know what is best for students? Why do strangers have the ability to place students on a particular track. Secondly, the teachers who instruct these advanced classes should be willing to sit with these students to help them determine whether the class choice is beneficial or not. After all, they will be teaching the course, why not know ahead of time who the students are. Lastly, high school students are intelligent beings who are preparing for college, and if not that, their future out of school. If they are willing to take the responsibility to choose a particular path in school, I do not doubt for an instant that they are also willing to take the responsibility for possibly not achieving the highest grade.
    All in all, I believe that the STUDENTS have the final say; they choose whether their school is setting them up with a “permission to fail” environment.

  4. Scott McLeod Avatar

    TK, thank you for your thoughtful comment. I spent a lot of time with the teacher(s) in this school – this wasn’t a fly-by comment. That said, I think you and I are mostly on the same page. The school genuinely does think it is doing what you’re saying here. I just wish it wouldn’t call this policy ‘permission to fail’ because I think the very labeling of the policy as such subtly, or not so subtly, influences how one thinks about the issues. As I noted, if you label the process ‘permission to fail,’ I believe you’re less likely to recognize that these striving students may need extra help and provide it than you are to simply believe that it’s solely up to them to pull up their bootstraps and do the harder work. As a result, some kids will fail when, with some extra assistance, they could be successful. How we label things is important because it influences how we think about things and how we act. Everything I’ve just said was confirmed by my interactions with teachers, students, and parents at this school.