Failure is not a full stop

Chintan Girish Modi

A few weeks ago, I watched Nagesh Kukunoor’s film Rockford with my eighth graders at Shishuvan and friend-colleague Sini Nair who has close to a decade of experience in teaching and counselling, and joined our school recently to teach English. During the open-ended discussion after the film, it was apparent that one of the themes which had resonated strongly with our students was that of overcoming failure.

The chief protagonist in the film is a boy named Rajesh at a boarding school. Soon after he fails his first Physical Education test at the school, he meets Johnny Mathew, a friendly and helpful assistant gym teacher who tells him that he too had failed the same test when he was a student. Rajesh is surprised, and says, “You now have muscles, Sir.” Johnny replies, “Time and hardwork!”

At the end of this conversation, Johnny invites Rajesh to his house, and shares a list of exercises and his special regimen. While Rajesh does feel encouraged, he still has some doubts regarding his own abilities. Johnny does not want to hear any of Rajesh’s whining. He says, “Don’t recognize failure. It’s simple. Then there’s no failure. Just treat it as a minor setback, a mere hurdle that you are going to jump over.”

I wonder how many schools have such conversations, how many Rajeshs are able to find such a Johnny to talk to. I am reminded instead of parents who tell their children, “Why did you score only 99 on 100 in that math test? You could have got full marks. Where did you lose that one mark? You need to focus on your studies and avoid making such silly mistakes!” I am reminded of teachers who tell their students, “You are good for nothing. All you do is sit in my class, talk endlessly with your friends and write rubbish in your papers. You deserve what you’ve got!”

While this may appear to be an exaggeration, the snatches of conversation quoted above are all too common in India. There is a huge amount of hype around academic performance measured in the form of marks or grades.

Zachary LeClair who teaches at an international School in Mumbai, remarks, “Cultures all over the world have come to rely on assessments and tests as the primary marker of a student’s worth and achievement. We don’t have assessments that score you on how good a friend you are, or how good at working in a team you are, but we’re certainly good at assessing a student’s grip on trigonometry. Until we loosen ourselves from this ‘culture of assessment’, both failure and success will be viewed through this narrow and very academic lens.”

Unfortunately, students and parents do lose sleep over these markers of success, and the situation gets worse as children grow older. The competition only gets tougher, and with college admissions, every single mark matters a great deal. In such a situation, it is important to reflect on how we tend to view failure and the people we think of as having failed. While grading test papers, when we come across one that gets a very low grade, what are the thoughts that bubble up in our minds?

Here are a few comments that I recall from my interactions in the staffroom — “I feel sorry for her. She has a learning disability. This is the best she can do.” Or “He is always distracted in class. He has lost all interest in studying. I am fed up with him.” Or “She can do much better than this. She is just too lazy. I don’t know what to do with her.” Or “I feel sad when I read a paper like this. It’s a personal thing for me. I wonder what they are learning in my class. I don’t know if I’m teaching them well enough.”

I am merely listing comments here, not analyzing or judging them. I feel each one comes from a place of genuine care and concern, also from a sense of importance attached to academic performance in determining how well a student is doing.

We as teachers feel bad when students do not meet expectations. Some of us are disappointed; some of us feel implicated in the student’s failure. It is important to state here that we are discussing failure not only in terms of getting an F grade or a mark that is below the minimum required to ‘pass’ a test, but also in terms of performing at a level that the teacher feels is much lower than what the student seems capable of. In addition to the teacher, the student feels bad, the parents too. Let’s say, in most cases.

What after this? Does this ‘feeling bad’ lead to any meaningful reflection on our part or conversation with the student that might help him/her? How many of us think about the various reasons that might be responsible for the student losing interest in a particular subject? Could his/her sagging interest levels be related to our teaching methods? Why does the student seem distracted all the time? Is he/she struggling with personal problems that we are unaware of? Why is the student being lazy and not performing up to his/her capacity? Could this be related to the fact that we as teachers are not challenging him/her enough to think outside his/her comfort zone? Is it really the student’s fault when the curriculum and the test favours assimilation and reproduction of facts instead of applying concepts learnt to real-life situations that are meaningful to the student?

These are very important questions to think about. Perhaps the most unsettling and significant one is – Is it alright if the student and his/her parents do not place much importance on academic performance, and are more interested in his/her enjoying whatever he/she participates in particularly extracurricular activities? This is a tantalizing one to answer. Yes, I think it is alright. Who am I to decide for that child and that family what their priorities ought to be? They may not want to raise their child keeping a future IITian or IIM graduate in mind. Fair enough! In fact, if I had a child, I most probably would have made the same parenting choice.

Failure, then, is not an absolute. It is clearly a matter of perception. Academic expectations and cut-offs, however objective they might seem, are based on a prioritization of skills, knowledge and values. If a student gets a ‘D’ grade on an English test, and gets the same grade over three consecutive tests, one would tend to assume that the student is terrible at English. However, that may not necessarily be true.

Most school examinations in India require students to answer in writing. The situation gets even more complex when we ask open-ended questions that require them to think beyond familiar texts and exercise their critical thinking skills. When a student writes an answer that we think of as unsatisfactory, we rarely consider the fact that he/she may have a rich imaginative response to offer but his/her written expression may not be able to match the depth of his/her imagination. It may not even be a case of being limited by one’s vocabulary in English. The student may have dyslexia, or simply feel more at home expressing those thoughts in speech rather than in writing.

If all written examinations were scrapped, and students were tested on conceptual understanding and application only through oral examinations and personal interviews, would there be a marked difference in the academic performance of students? This is worth thinking about.

If we take the case of a literature paper instead of a language skills paper, and find a student scoring 90 on 100, we may want to study the questions to gain an understanding of what the student is being tested on. Usually, the student is being asked to state which character in a prescribed play uttered a particular line, whom it was addressed to, and in what context. Else, the student may be asked to explain the significance of a specific word and its implications in a given scene, or the use of literary devices and the writer’s intention behind employing them. Banks of such questions, accompanied by model answers, are easily available for rote-learning.

It is no secret that students usually fetch more marks in papers on literary appreciation of prescribed texts than in papers that test their ability to write essays, or comprehend prose and poetry excerpts that are unfamiliar to them. Success in a literature paper at the school level involves, to a great extent, being prepared to spout expected answers to anticipated questions. Failure may not really mean an inability to make sense of Shakespeare’s ‘All the world’s a stage’ in the context of the student’s own life and relationships. Failure may simply mean an inability to offer what the ‘answer key’ demanded as a response to a particular question. This, to my mind, is most arbitrary and undesirable.

Why do teachers set such question papers? Don’t they want students to think rather than memorize? For one, they are limited by the format of the test determined by the education board they are affiliated to. Even if the students are not required to appear for public exams to be taken by all schools affiliated to a particular board, it is widely observed that schools start preparing their students for public exams at least two or three years in advance. Most schools want to boast of high achievers and merit rankers. This is brand-building.

As Zachary recalls from his experiences in the United States, “If a student is ‘failing’ in a certain teacher’s class, oftentimes some of this ‘failure’ will be transferred onto the teacher. Why couldn’t the teacher serve them better, the parents, administration or other teachers might ask. Also, a teacher is responsible for the culture of their classroom, as well as test scores. If the social dynamic of the room is chaotic, or if test scores suffer across the board for the students in the room, oftentimes it is the teacher that bears the blame for ‘failing’ these students as well.”

If we applied this logic to the Indian situation, it is clear why schools love to have students score insanely high marks. It gives them a good name. Many schools ask under-performing students to leave before they appear for public exams in order to eliminate any threat to their possibility of securing a cent-percent result, which means that all students pass, and the school has no ‘failures’. Clearly, schools themselves are afraid of failure. How will they offer any succour to students? How will they grow Johnnys to support Rajeshs?

Sushree Mishra, a California-based educator, shares, “The No Child Left Behind Act defines success in most of the elementary schools I have worked with in the US. If the students perform well on the standardized tests at the end of the year, then the school has achieved success. If not, it is perceived as a failure. The funding of the school depends heavily on the school’s success. In some of the teachers’ opinion, no or less funding has vast ripple effects, a risk schools cannot afford. Hence even if they don’t want to, they define success in terms of marks and grades students secure in the annual standardized tests.”

Zachary testifies to this experience. He says, “By using students’ test scores as the single metric that assures teachers their continued employment at the school, teachers have little reason to focus on areas external to the strictly academic realm. With the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act in the United States, public school classrooms became more and more focused on ‘teaching to the test’, as teacher friends of mine in the States call it. Teachers would receive the year’s summative tests at the beginning of their school year and construct their syllabuses completely around aiding their students in scoring as high as possible on this singular exam, with the carrots of further benefits, higher salaries, and extra money for the classroom promised to them if their students performed well.”

He adds, “If administrations provide no incentive for teachers to take risks, to try new strategies, to expand their sense of the curricula that they have been handed, then there should be no expectations that teachers themselves would try to expand the already very rigid boundaries they work within.”

Sushree has also worked briefly with The Teacher Foundation (TTF) in Bangalore. She shares, “In addition to test scores, TTF views success in schools in terms of qualitative rather than quantitative factors. For instance, factors like the rise in confidence of students, the ease of interaction with teachers, comparison of a child’s learning as compared to his/her previous performance (rather than comparing it with others), the improvement in the quality of teaching, rise in teachers’ confidence, and an ethic of caring were some of the qualitative factors used to evaluate the performance of schools.”

Now this certainly appears to be a more holistic set of parameters. When the success of a school is measured on these counts, it is inevitable that students too begin to be assessed more holistically, not on academic performance alone. While the good news is that one does come across schools that send home qualitative report cards describing the student’s interests, strengths, achievements and areas for further work, such schools are few and far between. Even such schools often face flak from parents for not focusing on what they think is most important in today’s cut-throat competitive scenario – marks and grades.

As Sini states, “Knowingly or unknowingly parents try to live and fulfill their unfulfilled desires and dreams through their children. This has an impact on children. Peers and their achievements are always looked upon as a threat and make children insecure because they see insecurity in various ways at home and around themselves all the time. There are set parameters in everybody’s mind which decide whether one is a success or not. Individual latent abilities are hardly tapped, and everybody has a herd mentality. All parents need to train their children to dissociate from numbers which act as benchmarks of success and pay attention to sharpen their skills.”

Vidushi Chaudhry, a special educator and partner at Mindsprings Enrichment Centre in Mumbai, shares a powerful story. In a recent article titled ‘Managing or Exploring Possibilities’, she writes about a child she calls R who she first began working with when he was eight. She says, “School was a huge struggle for him. He hated writing, it was hard for him and his work was covered with smudges. His best effort would produce illegible writing. He would willingly trade his soul with the devil to avoid reading. His report card was littered with Fs and everyone loved to complain about R. He couldn’t sit still; he distracted others, he was impossible to manage.”

I think Vidushi might agree with what Sini says about tapping the latent abilities of individuals, and helping them blossom instead of being miserable about not measuring up to the usual standards. Vidushi writes, “What R’s critics failed to see (often) were his skills. R has a wealth of thoughts and ideas that are indicative of his curious, seeking spirit. He can express himself more clearly and cogently than most of his peers orally. He is a standup comic and often has the rest of my students in splits with his antics. Socially, he is a leader. And spiritually, he is an inspiration. His resilience is extraordinary. He will work harder than everyone else without complaint.”

Such respect for a child, and such deep faith in his potential, is difficult to come by though I would like to believe that the teaching profession does have its share of Johnnys and Vidushis. In fact, such Johnnys and Vidushis might not even make a big deal of what they are doing. They may simply say, “I am just doing my job.” She writes about how ‘failing’ day after day in his academics had made R averse to taking risks. He needed to build confidence in himself. Vidushi and her colleagues worked with R, and praised all his attempts.

Using R as an example of children who struggle with serious learning issues, she writes, “As parents and educators, we often become so engrossed in the problems of the child and managing and coping. We become engrossed in learning the sum or spelling or grades that we forget that this child has the ability to create value in the world. He has something to offer. When the paradigm shifted for me, as a special educator, I realized I was operating from a limited approach. When we think of managing a disease or problem, we are on the defensive whereas expecting great health/things is a positive approach. A world of potential is lost in those who don’t perform to their capabilities and this is true of both learning difficulties and life.”

It is going to be increasingly difficult yet absolutely important for us to rethink notions of success and failure, especially since schools in India will see a massive change in the composition of their classrooms post the Right to Education Act. Not only would we have children from varying socio-economic groups sit together in the same classroom but also children with different kinds of disabilities such as visual impairment, hearing impairment, cerebral palsy, autism. The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan is working to implement this, and is being supported by organizations that specialize in working with children having different disabilities. Will it be possible to have uniform expectations of everyone? Will the education system be fair to everyone when the current curriculum and assessment practices clearly favour certain kinds of skills, knowledge and abilities? These questions merit serious thinking and research.

I find great value in what Zachary says, “As the adults in charge of the system, we like to think that students are the ones who are responsible for most of the ‘failing’, of the missing of the marks we’ve set for them, but more often than not the missing of these marks is a shared responsibility, and does not rest solely on the shoulders of the student. Classroom teachers, the administration, and parents all play a vital role in the ‘success’of a student, so why do we separate them out from the conversation when a student begins to ‘fail’? This is not to put the microscope on any one party but rather to impress that when a student is struggling, it should be the responsibility of all parties involved to think about what they can do.”

Chaudhry, Vidushi. ‘Managing or Exploring Possibilities?’ Shishuvan blog.

The author works with Shishuvan School, Mumbai. He can be reached at

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