Are we setting them up to fail?


Is giving students unrealistic expectations unfair & unreasonable? Are we setting them up to fail and failing to prepare them for the real world?

Education and the “real” world!

However much we, as educators believe with passion that education should be valued for its own sake surely that doesn’t mean that:

  • It ALL has to be easy and fun – the real world isn’t!
  • Every student is capable of achieving ANYTHING they want – life doesn’t give us everything we want and anyway sometimes there will be things we don’t have the capacity to achieve. In my view this is what “diversity” is about.
  • We should fail to consider the needs of the students in the future to function in society and the world of work.

The world is not a “nice” place that will pander to their every want or even to their desperate needs.

There are some things that will be unattainable. This is true for all of us & while I agree “man’s aim should exceed his grasp” I think this should be “but only just”. There are some things we have to learn to “get over”. Then get on with life in the knowledge that there are some things that we as an individual can’t do, just as there are some things we can do “better” than many others. Sometimes we can find an additional strategy to enably us to reach the unattainable but not always!

By way of illustration that everyone has some things that are impossible for some of us – I am a musical incompetent. I am semi-tone deaf, find keeping time extremely hard and consequently can’t dance, sing or appreciate what others see (sorry hear) in what is a fairly meaningless cacophany for me. As far as I am concerned it was far better to find this out young despite the angst it caused as a child to be “different” and singled out as a “growler”. The alternative now would probably be that I would be encouraged to feel that I could do anything and would be continually set up to fail in the name of increasing my self-esteem and not hurting my “precious” ego. The subsequent negative impact on myself and potentially on society of the inevitable self-realisation doesn’t really bear thinking about.

Differentiate the learning

My message in this is don’t try to tell all students they can do anything/everything! This just leads to disaster. Find out their strengths – celebrate and build on them. For example I have had a number of students over the years who were (in my professional opinion as an educator) not capable of developing critical thinking skills. Time to duck methinks – I see many bullets waiting to shoot me down in flames!  All of these students have had immense strengths in other areas. One was a brilliant natural horse rider, building an instant rapport with any horse she rode. Another was (so I’m told) an excellent musician.

I would certainly not deny students the opportunity to develop skills that in my professional judgement may beyond their capacity – I could be wrong (we will all be wrong in such judgements at times) and I always hope I will be wrong. However I believe strongly that I need to differentiate the learning. Many of the activities I use across three Certificate levels of Certificates in General Education for Adults are very similar for each level but are differentiated by the outcomes expected at each level.


In my opinion it is critical that I exercise my professional judgement on the potential capabilities of my students. I then need to apply this judgement to the development and utilisation of strategies that will enable my students to achieve to their full capacity.

4 thoughts on “Are we setting them up to fail?

  1. An important post, Jo. I agree with your comments and your conclusion.

    My feeling is that we can also be guilty of aiming too low in a rush to get students to achieve assessable competencies. At the same time, we will miss both what they are capable of, and what they are not capable of and need more help with. Which is I also feel failing “to consider the needs of the students in the future to function in society and the world of work.” And this is all related to your comment on exercising “professional judgement on the potential capabilities of my students”.

    Some of your beginning points reminded me of a recent discussion on #ELTchat on ‘demand high’ teaching following Jim Scrivener’s talk at IATEFL 2012. You might be interested in this too…

    This is the ‘Demand High ELT’ blog:
    “We demand far less from our students than they are capable of. Much contemporary teaching is unchallenging and has low expectations.”
    “We use our students as our excuse: “I don’t think it’s fair to put them in the spotlight”. We have misintepreted “humanistic” and “facilitation” as a bland “being nice to students”.

    This is the summary of the #ELTchat on Demand-High Teaching
    “Our students are capable of great things if we don’t underestimate them.”

    And Lizzie Pinard did a comprehensive post on her reflection on Jim Scrivener’s talk at IATEFL 2012 on this too:

    I hope I haven’t hijacked your post and moved it away from your main points, but the parallels occured to me as soon as I read your thoughts.

    Cheers, Lesley

  2. Thank you Lesley – I was hoping for comments so yours is hugely appreciated!

    I feel that the current over-focus on assessment leads to “teaching to the test” such that students are expected only to jump through the lowest possible hoop. A consequence of a $$ driven model and continual pressure on TAFE lecturers to push more and more students through in less and less time!

    I believe too that this lowest common denominator approach is, like the “unrealisitc expectations”. Both are often a consequence of the “being nice to students” strategy. I see too many students lacking in both conventional and digital literacy who expect to immediately get a very highly paid and interesting job with no qualifications or experience. In my view this is unrealistic at that stage in their lives, and for some of them will never be realistic.

    You certainly didn’t hijack me in any way. Thank you again for the comment and the great links!



  3. Thanks Jo.

    Glad you also see the link between unrealistic expectations and low expectations/demand.

    We won’t be doing students a favour by setting the bar low. As well as being unprepared for the job they want, too many students who have just scraped through a course, then go on to the next level and find they are completely unprepared.


  4. Yes Lesley,

    Agree absolutely!

    Main issue for me with (some – though definitely not all – I have a fantastic hardworking student group in my project atm of the young students (mature adults don’t expect it “on a plate”) is that I am probably the first one who tells them they have not done work of a sufficient standard. So they either drop out because it is “too hard” or start complaining about me! That is another area at issue – any negativity from students is invariably blamed on the lecturer by the organisation – this makes lecturers fear to make appropriate competency judgements incase they are censured.

    Sorry – I have too many “hobby horses” re all of this!\



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