7 reasons that the FAIL acronym fails

It is fashionable these days to avoid the ‘F’ word – by which, of course, I mean “Fail”. This is not confined to the area of teaching Computing, but enough people in this field have written about it to nudge me into writing my thoughts on the matter. So, the FAIL acronym, in case you haven’t come across it, is First Attempt In Learning. The idea of it is that instead of telling kids that they have failed at something, you tell that they have not failed. They may have not succeeded, but that is fine, because it was a First Attempt In Learning. Well, I have always been a believer in telling it how it is, and so for me the FAIL acronym does not benefit kids at all. Quite the opposite in fact. Here are my objections:

A pretty good example of a "Fail"! Photo by Kevin Jarrett https://www.flickr.com/photos/kjarrett/

  • Failing is empowering. You have the option of improving by recognising your mistakes, or having them pointed out to you. Additionally, it gives you the option of doing something else instead. There may not be much scope for this in school, but Kristine Kathryn Rusch, in her book Discoverability: A WMG Writers Guide* includes a great acronym: WIBBOW. This stands for Would I Be Better Off Writing? Obviously, that applies to writers, because that’s who the book is written for, but the principle is a good summary of the economist’s concept of the law of comparative advantage, which I explained in the article Why you should collaborate on a Computing scheme of work. Basically, it’s like this: I am useless at home improvement. If I put up a bookshelf, it will fall down as soon as I put a sheet of paper on one of the shelves. But I’m pretty good at other things, like writing (according to feedback I’ve had). So I would be better off writing and paying someone else to put up my bookshelf. The reason I know this to be true is that when I bought my first house, I spent ages putting up a bookshelf, using a spirit level to make sure it was completely level. After a few hours’ labour, I stood back and admired the jaunty angle that the bookshelves had assumed. In other words, I failed. And frankly, I am pleased I learnt after a relatively short and innocuous project that DIY and I don’t get on. Can you imagine if I had decided to install my own shower?
  • This business of not wanting to upset kids by using the F word. Good teachers address the work rather than the person, and make it quite clear that pointing out that some work that doesn’t come up to scratch is not the same as saying the pupil is a failure. So this FAIL acronym merely serves to muddy waters that should be crystal clear.
  • Besides, I thought one of the things that schools were meant to be doing is instilling resilience (another current buzzword). I don’t see how you can build up resilience without saying that some things a pupil has done aren’t good enough.
  • The acronym isn’t really logical. What do we call the second attempt “in” learning (horrible grammar too if you ask me)? SAIL? The third attempt? TAIL? Fourth attempt? FAIL? Gotcha!
  • Quite frankly, it’s patronising. What’s even worse is that most kids know when they are being patronised.
  • When the pupil has to take a test or an exam that is externally marked, getting insufficient marks to pass will not earn the pupil a pat on the back with a note from the examiner saying “Well done! This was your First Attempt In Learning”
  • In real life, getting a computer program wrong may have some pretty unfortunate circumstances. Employers and users are highly unlikely to say “Never mind! It was your First Attempt In Learning, so I don’t mind that I’ve wasted a lot of money!”
  • Finally, is there any research evidence saying that using the FAIL acronym has benefits? I haven’t come across any. It sounds to me like the same sort of nonsense that says kids’ self-esteem suffers if you mark their work with a red pen, so you should use a green one. (Incidentally, that is nothing new. My head of department mentioned this to me in 1978.)

In my opinion, we should stop bending over backwards and tying ourselves in knots as if we are doing some sort of advanced mental yoga. Just tell it how it is: honesty is always the best policy.

* If you buy the book via this link, I will earn a small commission from Amazon. Go on, buy it: you know it makes sense!

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