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.