Investigating the Root Causes of Failure

I originally wrote this article for Volume 118, Issue 5 of mathNEWS.

Like it or not, University acts as a filter. Upper-year classes are often hollow shells of their first-year selves, as students are hemorrhaged over the terms. In [1], Kalpin argues that students’ failures are the result of an inadequate secondary school system. In this article, we hope to propose alternate hypotheses and paradigms for this “problem”.

First, we note that Kalpin’s argument considers a specific case, and does not consider students who do not enter the University from an Ontario High School. In particular, a number of students are admitted from other post-secondary institutions, CEGEP, other provinces, and from abroad. Without demonstrable evidence that these groups are doing better than students who enter immediately after obtaining their OSSD, it’s hard to conclude that the school system is at fault.

We again note that Kalpin’s argument considers a specific case, and does not consider the effects of early childhood learning and reinforcement. In [2], Bronson summarizes the result of a paper out of Columbia, noting that students who are told they are “smart” would avoid risk-taking and were less able to recover after failure. Arguably, this, as much as exposure to difficult concepts in high school, could have a huge effect on students ability to recover after, say, failing a midterm or assignment.

In [3], Roman discusses how preconceptions developed in high school can interfere with students ability to develop their mental model of programming and with computers. We note that Kalpin is not required to take Scheme, as a result of curriculum changes in the Software Engineering program, and thus may not yet realize the benefits of exposure to functional programming, or the paradigm shifts required to write code in a functional style after having programmed imperatively for many months.

Finally, I’d like to explore some potential solutions to the issues presented by Kalpin in [1]. Many students encounter difficulty at all grades as a result of a poor understanding of the fundamentals – it’s not uncommon to send a student on their merry way if they get a 60% tests on addition or multiplication in second or third grade. If a student only understands 60% of multiplication, how do we expect them to understand integration, differentiation, or for that matter, feedback control systems? Self-paced learning and review from organizations such as Udacity, MITx, and Khan Academy can help students review the basics, so that they’ll be better prepared for the real learning, thinking, and innovation that can happen here.

Realistically, innovation is what we want here. I highly doubt that Kalpin will be able to gain enough political support in order to dictate policy changes to the Minstry of Education. Instead, it makes more sense to disrupt education from the bottom up – schools are starting to realize that YouTube can be a useful learning resource, and at Waterloo we really do have an opportunity to make the future better for incoming students, and, eventually, for our own children. Don’t think that level of disruption is out of your grasp – in [4], one Waterloo student has already documented how he’s changed the world of education.

How will you change the world today?


[1] J. Kalpin, “Why High School is Too Easy,” The Iron Warrior, vol. 33, no. 4, pp. 10, Mar. 2012.

[2] P. Bronson. (2007, Feb. 11). How Not to Talk to Your Kids [Online]. Available:

[3] Roman. (2008, Oct. 9). The Disadvantages of High School Programming [Online]. Available:

[4] D. Hu. (2012, Jan. 2). My Internship at Khan Academy [Online]. Available: