Friday, September 2, 2011

Grading failure is Not an option

One of the books I read this summer was Dweck’s Mindset. In a nutshell, the author argues that, as individuals we choose between two mindsets – the fixed mindset or the growth mindset.

The main attributes of the Fixed Mindset are as follows:
  • Ability (physical, artistic, intellectual) is “fixed”. You either “got it” or you don’t. Test scores and labels are forever. Persons in this mindset don’t handle failure well. Compliance and the status quo is favoured and “safe”. 
  • In this mindset, individuals spend a lot of time “proving” their ability – often at the expense of taking risks, learning from mistakes and being vulnerable. 
  • Natural ability and success is favoured over growth and hard work. Challenges are avoided and outside excuses are used when mistakes are made. The fixed mindset is often fed by the ego. Individuals in this mindset feel like they have to protect and nurse their confidence (which the author argues, might explain, why some students do not put forward their best.) 
  • In the fixed mindset individual accomplishment is favoured over team success. Individuals look to those who do worse for consolation 
  • In this mindset “Effort is only for those who don’t have ability” and “effortless perfection” is preferred.
  • In the fixed mindset, your failures label you a “loser”. 

The main attributes of the Growth Mindset are as follows:
  • The growth mindset changes the meaning of failure. 
  • Those in this mindset see ability as something that can be learned and enhanced with practice, perseverance and trial and error. Learning is synonymous with patience. Labels and test scores are not forever. 
  • Those in the growth mindset are constantly questioning the status quo and seek critical feedback. 
  • Individuals are comfortable showing others their vulnerabilities and mistakes. In the growth mindset the ego is dismissed. 
  • Teamwork and collaboration is favoured over self-promotion (the use of the first person “I” is not used) and individuals look to learn from others who have done better. 
  • In the growth mindset “character” is associated working hard, dealing with adversity, being a team player and dismissing your ego regardless of outcome. “Ability can take you to the top but character can keep you their” – John Wooden 
  • Success in in the growth mindset is seen as “doing your best, improving & learning” while failure is embraced as a motivator to do better and learn. 
  • A belief that all children can learn. Teachers who foster a growth mindset produce better achieving students. Teachers who label and promote a fixed mindset (grading all work, not honouring “practice” in learning, etc.) do not get better results. 

It’s time to stop "grading" failure in school.

I enjoyed the book and it reinforced some beliefs that I hold near and dear.

I worry that some who read this book might argue that “new trends” in assessment ( AFL, formative assessment, grading for learning, no zeros, etc.) have made “failure” obsolete and passé. That somehow schools and/or administrators have banned “failure”.

From my perspective (others can add their thoughts) what this book has completely reaffirmed in my mind is that, as teachers, we need to stop grading failure. Learning is about trial and error, taking chances and making mistakes until we get it right.

If we truly believe that all students can learn, than we need to embrace assessment and grading practices that honour learning for what it is (trial and error, practice, and perseverance).

At our school we have adopted some clearly defined grading policies, that I believe, are more in line with the idea that “learning is for all”. We don’t let students who might be stuck in the “fixed mindset” take a zero on an assignment for fear of being labeled “stupid”. We want to teach students that they are accountable for their work.  We want them to fully understand that true learning is about doing, making mistakes and redoing.
We need to stop “grading” our students’ mistakes and create environments that cultivate risk taking, trial and error and “learning for all”.

I have frequently used the slogan “failure is not an option”.  In reality, we need to embrace failure and mistakes as part of the learning process.  Perhaps a better slogan might be "grading failure is not an option!"



  1. YES!! Part if the issue with many "No Zero" "Power of I" policies-the I just replaced the "F" or "0". We need to use formative assessment in a way that makes "failure" safe. We want kids to try new things-it is OK to fail at something you try-that is when the best learning can occur-unless ths GRADE comes in to play. The focus needs to be on the learning-not the grading! Thanks for your thoughtful post!

  2. Thanks for your comments. My sense is that, while many in education have embraced this idea, there is still some work to be done! Thanks again!

  3. Absolutely! It is primarily through mistakes and failure that we all learn and grow.