Failure to Learn

It's Not What You Think...

"If at first you don't succeed, try, try again!"

While failure is an effective mode of learning, our current educational system is not set up to encourage exploration and risk-taking, where failures are opportunities. Rather, failure is seen as final and sometimes devastating. Harnessing the potential power of failure to promote deeper, more meaningful learning in students is a worthy goal. Students must be given the opportunity to take risks, fail, and then try again until they find success. When we focus on the process required to do that authentic learning, we are assessing them based on knowledge acquisition skills, rather than simply the knowledge acquired.


Below, you will find a proposal outlining how standards-based reporting can turn student failure into opportunities for learning, particularly when the standards used are skills- and disposition-based. This is a multi-faceted approach, as it requires a redesign of planning, assessment, and reporting. Such an approach is necessary when confronting a complex challenge.


There are some downsides to this proposal: it will require a tremendous amount of time and work at the outset, from developing the standards to creating appropriate assessments. Parent education will also be an essential aspect, as they will be wholly unfamiliar with this method of grading. Finally, this is relatively new territory. Schools which boldly accept this move will be doing so without a host of research-based evidence that it works. The attempt, however, is worth it in our opinion.


As Robert Marzano asserts in his book, Transforming Grading, “the most important purpose of grades is frequent, detailed feedback and, therefore, the best reference point must be specific objectives, standards, or other learning goals” (as cited in Miller, 2013). Educational institutions, like other institutions, are often resistant to change even when the initial structure of the institution no longer serves a common purpose as well as a more unconventional structure might (John Paul Gee, p. 91, 2013). The area of grading and reporting, we suggest, is one which is ripe for change in order to meet the needs of today's society and create an environment in which students can learn through failure.

Why Standards-Based Reporting?

White Paper Proposal on Standards-Based Reporting

According to the New Media Consortium, “learning is all about risk, but learning institutions are anything but risk tolerant” (2013). It is often the most rewarding learning experience of all to fail repeatedly before finding success. For this to happen, a complete redesign of assessment and reporting techniques is required: a redesign which moves schools from places where success is defined as lack of failure to places where risk-taking is encouraged and failures are seen as opportunities.


Recently, there has been a movement away from grading based solely on completion of assignments and performance on tests designed to assess content knowledge, toward standards-based reporting (SBR). For standards-based assessment to truly be effective at encouraging learning from failure, it must go beyond content and look deeply at the skills necessary to acquire knowledge along with traditional content knowledge. Focusing on development of learning dispositions and skills allows risk taking to enter the educational process and provides opportunity to go more deeply into content knowledge because there would be fewer standards.


We can see SBR at work when looking at the Montessori approach, where students in a multi-age classroom work independently to develop skills that are introduced to the whole group. This allows the student to move on upon proficiency or receive lesson scaffolding until mastery. Another example, Chugach School District in Alaska, began using SBR in 1994. The district allows students to move through levels at their own pace as well. In just five years, standardized test scores drastically improved (Marzano, p. 140, 2008).


There are several technologies which could help as schools move toward SBR. One progress monitoring data technology tool schools are using is called AIMSWeb. AIMSWeb allows for skills to be closely tracked and the students’ “response” to the “intervention” or lesson to be adjusted accordingly. Throughout the school and the district, educators are able to enter and share student progress with one another on a regular basis. Another tool, which Marzano suggests for SBR, is Pinnacle Plus. This software allows schools to input their standards, then track them (p. 106, 2006).


SBR fits in the TPACK model quite well. In today's world, use of technology is an integral part of the learning process. It is a given, therefore, that many of the skill standards we are proposing be assessed will be linked to effective use of technology tools. The content will still be a focus-the skills and dispositions being assessed and reported on will be viewed through the lens of the course content. This knowledge which was once the primary focal point of assessment, however, will take a backseat in reporting. In terms of pedagogy, standards-based reporting is viewed in many circles as best practice.


Patricia Scriffney addressed the benefits of standards-based reporting in her Educational Leadership article, saying “students who struggle can continue to retest and use alternate assessments until they show proficiency, and they are not penalized for needing extended time” (2008). This should always be our goal as educators; getting all students to show proficiency. Additionally, Scriffney makes the point that “if adults on the job… cannot determine the quality of their own work, the results are generally undesirable. Quality matters, and the ability to measure the quality of one's own work is a learned skill” (2008). Allowing room for failure and time to learn from it better prepares our students for life after school. SBR grounded in skills makes this possible.


As with any new idea, there are questions that come to mind. With SBR, the biggest problem is figuring out how students and parents know what grades mean under this form of reporting. “Grades" become obsolete: the focus is on skills, not on what percentage a student gets on an assessment. Per Miller’s article:


When the goal is mastery of standards, it doesn’t matter that students

might not complete exactly the same assignments… because the focus

is on what the student is learning rather than how much the student

is doing. A standards-based approach to assessment still holds

students accountable...but it leaves teachers free to individualize and

leaves students free to concentrate

on learning (2013).


In Education, an ‘Impossible Profession?’ Tamara Bibby writes, “if we could make sure that education today would inoculate us against ignorance tomorrow… we could be sure that we ‘have the skills’ to cope with whatever the future might demand” (p.136, 2011). By encouraging our students to take risks, by helping them view their failures as opportunities for growth, and by reporting their progress based on skill-based standards, we will be providing them with tools for success.


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Bibby, T. (2011). Education, an impossible profession: Psychoanalytic explorations of learning and classrooms. London: Routledge.


Conklin, J. (2013, January). In Larry Johnson (Chair). The future of education. , Austin, TX. Retrieved from http://www.nmc.org/pdf/2013-Horizon-Project-Summit-Communique.pdf


Marzano, R. J., & Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. (2006). Classroom assessment & grading that work. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.


Miller, J. J. (2013). A Better Grading System: Standards-Based, Student-Centered Assessment. English Journal, 103 (1), 111-118.

Retrieved from:http://www.ncte.org/library/NCTEFiles/Resources/Journals/EJ/1031-sep2013/EJ1031Better.pdf


Scriffiny, P. L. (2008). Seven reasons for standards-based grading. Educational Leadership, 66(2), 70. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.msu.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/224842932?accountid=12598


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In the Words of Others...

“I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”


Thomas Edison

“Failure can either be a stepping stone to success or a stumbling to defeat.”


Ron Holland

“If you are not failing, you are not growing.”


H. Stanley Judd

“To avoid failure is to limit accomplishment.”


Will Rogers

“Failure is just a resting place. It is an opportunity to begin again more intelligently.”


Henry Ford

“Losers quit when they fail. Winners fail until they succeed.”


Robert Kiyosaki