• Therese

School is not about success or failure

Updated: May 23, 2019

A dear Irish teacher friend once said “we all reach our potential”, whatever that means...


Failure does NOT belong to the language of learning. I bring this to your attention because the concept is trending at schools... When we learned to walk and talk, failure didn’t happen unless the grown up wanted their treasure to be the first, the best or the fastest, failure is the language of the ego and ego rubs shoulders with regret, resentment and fear.


Failure and success is a finite concept, it belongs to competition and achievement. The carrot seed does not need to know the concept of failure to grow, it has a purpose and that is to grow, so it grows. The purpose of all living things is to grow, where does “failure” fit within a purpose? When we focus on the purpose, learning is inevitable. The person who can’t speak will learn to communicate because the purpose is to connect so as to grow. A person who is blind will learn to read because the purpose is to connect with the written word so as to grow. The concept of success and failure is limiting.


The 5 Rs, Reading, Riting, Rithmetic, Remembering and Regurgitating. Schools bought in to failure when they bought in to exams, exams were introduced to streamline the learning process as schools became more populated. Schools needed to make learning efficient, maybe not particularly more effective. They introduced the first exam and wrote their first report in 1858. It pointed out, “Their answers, even when accurate, showed a general uniformity of expression which seemed to imply that meagre handbooks had been placed before the Students to be ‘got up’ and that little attempt had been made by their instructors to excite the interest of their pupils by questionings or remarks of their own.”


Exams and assessments within a confined criteria are still the main measure of learning in the academic system. What does this say about the evolution of academia? To reflect the times, exams were expected to stimulate competition through reward. In this new millennium, students need the ability to relate to others, participate, contribute, manage oneself and to think. It is a heavy burden to expect an adjudicator to assess the validity and importance of an original idea, don’t you think? So we continue to measure how well we remember facts and how well we can regurgitate them because it is measurable. So how can we measure education without creating winners and losers, success and failure? How did they possibly learn prior to 1858? I see possibility, I see potential.


Learning does not breakdown or stop functioning, misfire or come to nothing, as the definition of failure would suggest. Learning stops when you have reached your potential – six feet under? Even then, you would expect that your learning is in the space you left behind.

Learning is infinite, it is abundant. Failure is the absence of learning.

Therese is from a large family with three children of her own. Mr 26, Miss 24 and Master 15. As an educator with many years of experience, she has collected plenty of stories, she uses these and family tales to inform her teaching practice.


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