The Freedom to Fail, the Right to Succeed

Call it what you will, ‘bell curving’ or ‘marks inflation’ or ‘social passing’, or even ‘maintaining a certain flexibility with regard to evaluation’, an A is not necessarily an A.


True, the more students fail, the more apt they are to drop out, and the fewer students a school has, the less money it gets. But to lie to students about the quality of their work in order to get more money is to use them. Furthermore, if the students who fail did quit (and perhaps they should—institutionalized education, academic education, is not the be-all and end-all for everyone, and those who say it is are probably just trying to save their jobs), well, the institution may not need the money. So what’s the problem? A ‘money for the sake of money’ mentality is the problem. (Unless of course that money would benefit other students, those who don’t quit; but then it’s X’s benefit gained at Y’s expense.)


And true, the greater the number of failures, the worse the teacher or the school looks. But, well, looks can be deceiving.


In an ideal world, student success does reflect teacher/school competence—but ours is not an ideal world. Students in increasing numbers don’t bother to show up for class on a regular basis; nor do they bother to do the assigned homework. Oh, but ‘if your class was really interesting, they’d show up’ and ‘if your assignments were really relevant, they’d do them.’ Excuse me, but let’s not delude ourselves—teachers are seldom that important in a student’s life. I have, as a student, on occasion skipped class, and it was never the teacher’s fault—I would’ve skipped whatever class I had at that time on that day. And I have, as a student, on occasion gone to class unprepared, and again, it was never the teacher’s fault—probably I hadn’t done the work for any of my classes that day or that week.


And then there’s this argument: a pass boosts the students’ confidence, their self-esteem, their social development. Yes, it’s good for students to have self-esteem, but at some point our schools must change from being Wellness Centres to being Educational Institutions: if I need surgery, I wouldn’t want a surgeon whose professors considered self-esteem when grading. Further, students need a healthy self-esteem—not a fake one. And, unless they’re very young, they usually know the difference—they can smell a gift, an inflated mark, from two desks away. And if they don’t know it’s a gift, a lie, at the time, they’ll find out five years later—and then they’ll really be pissed, and may not survive the blow (for what inner resources will they have, once they know that any confidence they thought they had was fake).


If we respect our students, we’ll tell them when they’ve made a mistake, when they’ve done it wrong, when it’s just not good enough. We don’t have to be brutal about it. And we certainly don’t have to be terminal about it: few failures are irrevocable; in fact, most mistakes are opportunities to learn—knowing how to do it wrong often sharpens knowing how to do it right. Notwithstanding that, no course should be un-passable for the student with the necessary prerequisites, who attends every class, and who completes the assigned practice.


Which leads to what makes bell curving, in particular, invalid: it’s based on the faulty premise that effort and ability are distributed within a class according to a certain stable pattern. I don’t know whether this was ever the case, but it sure doesn’t seem to be the case now: it seems half of my students are academically unprepared for the course they signed up for and half are attitudinally unprepared for any course.


The other problem with bell curving is that it makes grades completely relative. If an A just means that you’re better than most of the others in the class, then why bother with grades at all—why not just use ranks? In fact, why bother with standards at all? When the grades are relative, a B can’t mean ‘clear and competent grasp of the course material,’ it can only mean ‘clearer and more competent than a C,’ which is ‘better than a D,’ which is ‘better than an F’, which is, hm, ‘worse than a D’—can you spell ‘circular’?


Perhaps the biggest problem with ‘marks fixing’ is this: if students know they’ll pass anyway, most will be less apt to bother going to class and doing the work. This feeds a vicious cycle: the marks are fixed so they don’t do the work, so the marks have to be fixed.


No, the biggest problem is this: if students don’t have the freedom to fail, they’ll probably never experience success. And I mean true success—genuine understanding of the material or mastery of the skills, after genuine effort. Surely students have that right. But in a system in which it’s impossible to fail, it’s also impossible to succeed.


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