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Doesn’t everyone want to do well in school and to be acknowledged for success? Surely no one starts out wanting to fail. So why do so many students fail or leave before graduation? 

It remains a debatable point as to who failed: the student, the teacher, the school, the family, or society itself. We probably won’t find the answers entirely within the educational system, as these are intricate issues, both objectively and subjectively. 

I do acknowledge the need to set criteria and measure progress. On the other hand, I am concerned about penalties associated with the label “failure,” whether in school now or later when (hopefully) employed. What do we mean when we use the word “fail”? 

This came to mind over the weekend in an entirely different situation. My husband John and I went inline skating for the first time in many (maybe too many) years. I didn’t find it particularly difficult to skate on a level surface or up small hills, but controlling myself while going downhill or stopping at curbs was another matter. I was wobbly, and twice I knew I was about to fall. So I aimed for a grassy slope, rolling instead of just plopping down, and I escaped injury-free. 

Luckily I’m pretty good at falling, having learned as a child while preparing for a small role in a local ice skating show. During the first few days of rehearsal we learned how to fall and how to get up gracefully afterwards. Though in an actual performance I hoped I would not need to use what I had learned, the practice was reassuring and might have been one of the reasons the show went well. 

So now I am thinking about learning to fall without confusing it with failing, and I’ve concluded that I must be willing to do both if I want to learn or to try something new. I just wish this idea were more common in the educational as well as the business world. People talk about “nothing ventured, nothing gained” yet avoid risk for fear of failure or penalty. John Dewey, the noted educational reformer, said: “Failure is instructive. The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes.”

So in school, do students get a chance to redo an assignment, go a second or third round on a project, or retake an exam? The very word “failure” is treated as an ending and a shameful act, rather than as an opportunity to try again, to practice variations, to demonstrate having learned from the initial failure. 

The fail-and-try-again cycle happens occasionally in the working world, too. We sometimes read about notable companies that encourage innovation and even embrace failure. But the reason we read about them is because they are rare and therefore newsworthy, the exception rather than the rule.

The Buddha is reputed to have said: “The only real failure in life is not to be true to the best one knows.” 

Being familiar with quotations such as this, I was curious to investigate more about failure. Perhaps not surprisingly, online sources and my several books of quotations have a huge number of entries under the heading of “failure”—even more than under the heading of “success.” The Baha’i writings encourage learning by doing, even while recognizing differing levels of ability among people. To offer one example, I find three relevant points within this brief phrase from Abdu’l-Baha: “… make ye a mighty effort, and choose for yourselves a noble goal.”Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 35. 

First, the words “mighty effort” say to me: Work hard, strive, assert, do my personal best. 

Second, the words “choose for yourselves” suggest: Take ownership, care about what I am doing, be self-motivated. 

Third, the words “noble goal” mean: Commit to something important, see its potential for myself and others, be challenged by it. 

When schools recognize their role in educating the whole person—body, mind and spirit—then ideas such as succeed and fail will take on new meaning. Children will learn about accepting disappointments and become skilled in recovering from their inevitable falls. They will grow up with the confidence to take risks in the future, too. That will become advantageous for all of us, as together we benefit from what they have learned.

4 Comments

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  • Claire Qiu
    6 days ago
    Hi Jaellayna, may I have then honor to translate this article into Chinese and share it in Chinese social media hosted by Bahais? Best Regards, Haonan
    • Jaellayna Palmer
      6 days ago
      Hello - and thank you for this message. I am very happy that you want to do this and pleased to give my permission to you. May it be useful to others and stimulate conversations!
  • William Bender
    Jun 28, 2019
    This article is so appropriate to me at this time in that last week I left a job that I had working for three months that was a terrible fit for me. I feel that I have failed .
    • Jaellayna Palmer
      Jun 28, 2019
      Thank you for this comment. It sounds to me like your recent experience is a SUCCESS not a "failure." You had the insight to recognize a mismatch, you had the courage to act upon it, and you know & trust that you will discover a better job. So I say: Bravo, William!