In her bestselling book The Gift of Failure, Jessica Lahey tells the story of talking to parents who were unhappy because their child had received a B-minus.

The story hits home, as Lahey explores the perils of not letting children fail because it robs them of opportunities to learn and develop.

The vignette left me with a different question.

What if teachers couldn’t give students B-minuses?

I’m not encouraging grade inflation or having students avoid “failure,” but rather reducing the stakes of failure and embedding failure in the process of learning.

I am talking about competency-based learning—which also goes by the names mastery learning, standards-based learning, or proficiency-based learning. Lahey has talked about the merits of the idea as well, while also acknowledging that it’s a far way off.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t push for it.

In today’s system, time is held as a constant and each student’s learning is variable. Students move from concept to concept after spending a fixed number of days, weeks or months on the subject. Educators teach, sometimes administer a test, and move students on to the next unit or body of material regardless of their results, effort, and understanding of the topic. Students typically receive feedback and results—in the form of a letter grade—much later and only after they have progressed.

And that grade communicates very little. It doesn’t tell you what students have mastered or where their gaps are. A grade of B-minus, for example, means that the student is likely developing big holes in her learning as she moves past building-block concepts without having mastered them. These holes are also likely to haunt her later on in a way that the traditional letter grade system doesn’t communicate.

This system also signals unambiguously to students that it doesn’t matter if you stick with something because you’ll move on either way—and you’re best avoiding hard things because if you fail, it will just go on your so-called “permanent” record.

This obsession with students’ permanent records explains a lot of behavior in places like Lexington, Mass. where I live. In the district, educators talk often about how students and families will do everything they can to avoid failure—not recognizing the critical role failure plays in learning.

Contrast this with a competency-based learning model in which time becomes the variable and learning becomes the constant. Students only move on once they demonstrate mastery of the knowledge and skills at hand. If they fail, that’s fine. They stay at a task, learn from the failures, and work until they demonstrate mastery and then move on.

Instead of receiving a B-minus, students keep working at something until they demonstrate mastery. Failure is embedded in the process. A student might struggle for a long time with a concept and fail repeatedly until the proverbial light bulb goes off. And that failure is no longer attached to a high-stakes outcome.

At this point, many people will point out that failure is part of the real world, and it’s best if we help students to learn it now.

But that’s overly simplistic. As Jason Fried, CEO and cofounder of Basecamp, the project management and team communication software company, said on the Tim Ferriss podcast:

“The thing that is not taught in schools is iteration. Iteration is everything outside of school. Where you do something, and you launch it or ship it or whatever and then you’re on to making a better version of that thing pretty quickly. In school, we would always do something and then sort of hand it in and the assignment would be done. Then you’d go on and do another assignment. You never get to revisit things. In the professional world, you’re revisiting things all the time.”

Fried’s vision also moves far past another chief worry people have about competency-based learning: that it will be reductionist, in which standards are items to be checked off simplistically one by one, as opposed to in the context of a deeper, more contextualized and connected fabric.

Ted Mitchell, now the president of the American Council on Education, was formerly a professor at Dartmouth where he taught a class on the history of education. Students had four papers to write for the class. They couldn’t move on to the second paper until they had earned at least a B on the first paper. Which meant they kept revising until they received that grade. And then they had the option to continue to revise if they wanted to earn an A.

It was not precisely competency-based learning, but it was in the same spirit. And it shows that the demonstration of mastery can—and should—be on complex projects and assignments.

Fundamentally the question comes down to this: Do we want our education system to be a sorting system or a learning system? Right now, we have a sorting system that allows students to learn. I vote for a learning system in which we can figure out other ways to sort where that is necessary.

As we wrote in Disrupting Class, we can find other ways to compare students. For example, “because learning will no longer be as variable, we can compare students not by what percentage of the material they have mastered, but by comparing how far they have moved through a body of material.”

In other words, we can look at the rate of learning—what Gunnar Counselman, COO of the Entangled Group, calls learning velocity.

Or we could look at what choices students have made around what to learn and how much they have mastered in those different pursuits.

Or we could look at each student’s portfolio of projects.

In other words, there are lots of ways to still compare where comparison is important.

One note of caution though for any school going down this path: although this would eliminate the flawed grading system we have today—and mean that teachers would no longer have to give students B-minuses—don’t start by overturning the grading system itself. As this piece by Chris Sturgis for CompetencyWorks warns, doing so will draw headlines and likely cause the community to focus on “grading not learning,” which means people will fail to understand why schools must change.

Instead educators and communities should start with the “why” for change—which includes embedding the gift of failure in our education system.


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.