Learning How to Fail

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My granddaughter and I were talking about the challenges she faces going to a new school in a new town in September. She’s an excellent student but worries about keeping up her grades. I told her that once when I was her age in a new school, I got 4% on an algebra test.

I felt so devastated when I received my paper back with that incredibly horrible verdict not only including an exclamation mark, but circled in red, that I slipped out the side door at the next break and ran home, tears streaming behind me. I thought I was the biggest idiot on earth. Who gets 4%? Not even the goofy guys at the back of the remedial math class got 4%! I wanted to quit school.

One – or maybe two – “fluish” days later, when I finally dragged myself back into the classroom and had the nerve to ask the teacher why I had done so poorly, he explained I actually only made one mistake, but I made it 24 times. (I did receive credit for the first non-computation question.) He showed me that I needed to invert something in a different place and on my next test I had a much better mark.

I still remember how difficult it was to walk back into that room and ask for help. My report cards always said “conscientious worker.” I had never failed a test before. I didn’t know how to handle failure.

A few years ago I met a brilliant science teacher who inspired many students to go on into even more brilliant careers in science.

“What’s you secret?” I asked.

“I make sure they fail,” he said.

“But you teach the brightest and best students in the district!”

“And that’s why I give them a test early in the year that they are guaranteed to fail.”

“That doesn’t sound fair,” I protested with a little sympathetic whine wheedling into my voice.

“Oh, it’s not fair. I intentionally give them a test on a chapter they haven’t covered. I base questions on misleading or incomplete information. I load it with trick questions and unclear directions and then I arrange for dramatic distractions to invade the classroom and tell them to put down their pens and hand in their work before they have had time to finish. It’s definitely not fair.”

He smiled, looking proud of himself.

“At the end of the day I place folded sheets of plain paper in front of each student,” he said. Their test grade is written inside — a failing grade. I then dismiss the class and rush to an “important meeting” which involves a location where I cannot be reached until after the weekend.”

“Why would you do that?” I asked.

“To give them time to let that failing grade do its work. Because this test is not about the material. This test is about tests. This test is about learning how to fail the way a martial arts student first learns how to fall. This test is about teaching high achieving students who have probably never failed an exam in their lives that resilience is more important than a perfect academic record.”

“How do they react to that?”

“Usually poorly. On Monday morning the helicopter parents are circling the principal’s office, the budding law students are lining up with prepared arguments, and the discouraged students, at least the ones that show up, drag themselves into the classroom to the tempo of a death march.”

“Poor kids.”

“Not at all. I hand out their written tests, and lecture them on failure and recovery as a necessary part of success.”

“You don’t let them re-write for a better grade?”

“No, of course not. It’s a stupid test. I invite them to re-write the test – but not the answers. I tell them to re-write the questions. Learning is about asking better questions. The test I gave them had unanswerable questions. I tell them to ask better questions – then I show them how to look for the answers to the test they designed.”

 

I realized that what this master teacher gave his students was an opportunity to develop perseverance and endurance in a new atmosphere of confidence free from the fear of failure. I also realized he was not the first person to teach this. James wrote about it in the Bible.

Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way.

If you don’t know what you’re doing, pray to the Father. He loves to help. You’ll get his help, and won’t be condescended to when you ask for it. Ask boldly, believingly, without a second thought. People who “worry their prayers” are like wind-whipped waves. Don’t think you’re going to get anything from the Master that way, adrift at sea, keeping all your options open…

Anyone who meets a testing challenge head-on and manages to stick it out is mighty fortunate. For such persons loyally in love with God, the reward is life and more life.

(James 1:2-8, 12 The Message)

Are you facing a test in which there seems to be no perfect solution? Maybe the test is about more than filling in the blank with an approved answer. Maybe it’s about developing enduring faith and the confidence to follow the trail of better questions.

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2 thoughts on “Learning How to Fail

  1. What an awesome post!

    David Joseph had posted it on FB and that’s how I found your blog. I am so glad I came across this today.

    Prov 15:23 says, A person finds joy in giving an apt reply– and how good is a timely word!

    Today I’ve found joy in receiving this apt reply – you have no idea how delightful it is to hear from God.

    What’s even more exciting is that He doesn’t answer some of my questions directly, immediately. It’s like the teacher who goes off on a vacation. But then suddenly I find a blogpost, song, sermon etc. that clarifies everything. (As you’ve mentioned in your about page, it’s like being on a treasure hunt. And I am enjoying every moment of it.)

    When Jesus, the master storyteller walked on earth, He kept narrating parables for the sake of the disciples to remember and understand things clearly.

    What you’ve written is a modern day parable.

    Thank you for writing this. Immensely blessed!

    Thanks for being a blessing. Have a wonderful day. 🙂

    Like

    1. David Joseph is a super guy, isn’t he? So glad you found this helpful. I love the way the Lord leaves caches of provisions where we will find them along the way. I love it even more when he lets me be involved in that process. He’s good that way. And now you have blessed me with your comment! Thank you for taking the time to encourage me as well!

      Liked by 1 person

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