FAILURE is the failure of modern education

 

And it is at direct odds with the evolving work environment.


Read Time: 5 minutes

A shorter version of this article originally posted to Medium.

My sixth-grader is scared to death of failing. Specifically his biggest fear is getting an “F” on a test of assignment (…well, that and clowns). And let me say that he isn’t one of these “nose always in a book” type kids. There was a period a couple of years ago when his grades were average at best, and he didn’t seem to care that much. After a little encouraging and positive reinforcement, he committed to studying and working hard and his grades have jumped to among the top in the class. I’m really proud of him.

But, along with his academic renaissance has come the fear of not doing well in school. Which on the surface is perfectly fine. And I am apt to chalk it up to his personality, anyway. It just so happens that other projects in which I am involved lead me to think think otherwise. And the ramifications are potentially table-flipping.

The Big Disconnect

My state — Mississippi — is introducing a course into public high schools this coming year which teaches the concept of entrepreneurialism. I had the honor of being asked to sit on a study group panel that reviewed the course curriculum being developed. I wholeheartedly applaud our education system for moving in this direction. However, in sitting with the group and understanding the concerns that arose from the standpoint of educators,  it became evident how at odds the idea of “entrepreneruism” is with the rest of our traditional academic practices.

How can you spend 16–20 years programming kids to succeed by “following the rules” only to throw them into a work environment where they are told to “think outside the box” and “challenge the status quo?”

 

The classic mantra of the entrpreneur is “fail fast, fail cheap.” Think about that for a moment, and juxtapose it to with our contemporary education system. Our children are taught to be methodical, careful, deliberate, to check and re-check work, and above all, do everything they can possibily can do to not be wrong…to not fail. 

On top of this we measure our student achievement by objective testing instruments and assign a number range to their work based on the percentage of answers they got wrong. In most grading scales, anything below 70% is failing. You have to be right 90% of the time to receive an "A". Again, held up against the concept on "entrepreneurialism," this just doesn't make sense. An entrepreneur is wrong most of the time. In fact, and entrepreneur fails and fails and fails and actually only stops failing when they get ONE thing (their objective) correct.

Entrepreneurs also challenge the rules, whereas "good students" abide by them. When the educators who are to be charged with teaching entrepreneur classes were faced with this, they lost a bit of facial color.

"Every other teacher in the school will be on top of these kids about abiding by the rules...and you're going to be the ones telling them to break from rules...you're colleagues are going to hate you!" I joked with them.

And it was a joke. A hyperbole. But what's not hyperbole is the real disconnect that is apparent between academic and workforce success. How can you spend 16–20 years programming kids to succeed by “following the rules” only to throw them into a work environment where they are told to “think outside the box” and “challenge the status quo?” It’s breaking Pavlov’s rule to think they can jump right into this kind of practice when they have been for so long punished for just such an approach.

So What Happened?

I make the joke that my rants on this subject are easily dismissed as the old Gen Xer shaking his cane at the proverbial Millennials/Gen Zs on his lawn while reminiscing for “the good old days.” It is actually quite the opposite. Our education system (which, let’s face it, for better or worse is just a prolonged process of workforce development) did serve us well for decades. It gave us the most productive workforce in the world and a subsequent economy the likes of which was unrivaled in history. Then we started trending down, and by all accounts the trend is accelerating. This is no great surprise considering that we continue to implement education strategy in basically the same way we did 30+ years ago, with a few tweaks around the edges and more bells and whistles. An iPad in every class with the same "encyclopedic approach" to education is nothing more than digital window dressing.

So if the education system has remained essentially the same, we are to conclude that it is the finishline — the workforce environment — that has witnessed the shift. I don’t have to do a heavy lift to convice you of this. Consider that the value of manufacturing in the US is continually rising, but employment in the sector is rapdily declining. The percentage of people participating in the workforce declines, even as the second largest generation in US history, Millennials, are hitting their workforce-age stride. The sea change has come with automation, AI, and robots.

When we were dependent on humans to perform most jobs and most of those jobs were dependent on following process and procedure, our education system built on “following the rules” served us well. It had practical implications in the working world. And not just for manufacturing jobs but for technical and white collar careers, too.

The problem is that no matter how well trained we humans are, we will mess up. Robots and software, on the other hand, have much smaller margins of error. The simple fact is, robots can perform process and procedure — regardless of complexity — better than can humans. Once the economics of automation reached the tipping point of being efficient to implement, it was only a matter of time before human jobs were replaced. We are in the middle of this now.

 

 

Education Should Reflect Human Value

The value propostion for humans in the “automated economy” is that very fundamentally-human aspect that our education system largely seeks to eradicate: our ability and desire (some would say need) to deviate. By definition entrepreneurs are rejecting the status quo. Machines can’t do this. This is where our value lies, so why doesn’t our education system encourage building this value by encouraging deviation? Or at the very least, not quashing it.

As previously alluded to, deviation and entrepreneurism is a tough concept to “grade” in the traditional sense. Educational achievement is based on being evaluated vis a vis a set of standards applied equally (theoretically) to all students. If a student is encouraged to NOT follow this system, how does the system evaluate the student’s ability equitably? And if being able to and learning from failure is a valuable part of the entrpreneurial process, how can this concept be reconciled with evaluation? Can you get a good grade for failing???

I don’t pretend to have the answers. While it may be true you can't teach deviation, you certainly can prevent it, which is precisely what our education system does much of the time. And it isn't even an active witch hunt against deviation for the most part. It is an inherent result of the design of the system, and one that should make every effort to correct. At the very least, I think  a great place to start would be to actively de-stigmatize failure.


Epilogue: My 6th grader was recently asked to join the Junior Beta Club chapter at his school...and I'm very, very proud : )

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