Failure in School


A DISCREPANCY always exists between actual accomplishment and inherent ability; few persons ever reach the goal within their power. In school and college the hiatus is least for average boys and girls. They encounter fewer obstacles in classroom assignments; they complete more satisfactorily every course which they undertake; for each class sets its own pace, one suited to its average member. It is the exception whose grades fall short of what a knowledge of his capabilities leads one to anticipate, for, whether sluggish or brilliant, he who departs from normal finds the rate too fast or too slow.

One expects the dull boy to lag, and until recently it has been assumed that slowness in school evinced lack of intelligence. But during the last two decades a technique has been developed by means of which it is possible to measure capacity independent of its manifestation in the classroom. The original aim was to isolate the characteristics requisite to achievement in each occupation and profession and so guide boys and girls; successful surgeons, for instance, differ radically in their inherent characteristics from successful salesmen, and this difference can now be measured. Then the technique was turned to the study of retarded pupils with the aim of determining that characteristic which was wanting and examining it scientifically.

Poor students are of two types. Some lack ability, as might be expected; others possess too much. This article deals with the latter group. From the standpoint of the school they are indistinguishable from the dull, for both fail. Only painstaking measurements sort the one kind from the other.

Even parents do not always recognize ability in their own children. The Human Engineering Laboratory at Stevens Institute of Technology and in Boston purposes to diagnose educational and vocational problems and so to assist in solving them intelligently. To this Laboratory a white-haired grandmother brought not long ago a nineteen-year-old grandson. His parents, both brilliantly successful, had given him up as hopeless. He had failed and been asked to leave a well-known preparatory school. The Laboratory staff were all but told that he was a hopeless moron. Only the grandmother had courage enough to hope that some hidden ability might be discovered. When measured, the boy excelled in every characteristic. The larger the number of aptitudes inherent in an individual, the greater should be his chance of success. But one as abnormally gifted as this boy, one who scores high over too wide a range, instead of ranking at the top in scholarship as he should, frequently falls to the foot of his class and often leaves school or college under the duress of some deficiency.

The failure of the highly endowed boy and girl, although incipient in high school and preparatory school, appears most strikingly in college. Some time ago the Laboratory measured one hundred members of a college freshman class. In a study of the results it arranged the individuals horizontally across the bottom of a chart in the order of the number of mental elements or aptitudes which a careful test, made at the beginning of the year, showed each to possess. It then plotted vertically for each his subsequent success in freshman year as shown by his average grade. Although the points obtained scattered widely, a curve drawn to represent their general tendency rose steadily with ability, as one might expect, until it reached the multi-gifted members of the class, where it turned sharply down. Such boys promise unwonted possibilities, but differ sufficiently from average to be likely to experience hardships.

The boy with a plethora of aptitudes is restless. He dabbles in many fields; he meanders, hoping to discover something absorbing, abetted by finding everything so easy that an obstacle causes merely a change in direction. Even when he graduates from college his first position seldom demands the full gamut of his endowments and he continues to stray aimlessly in search of an ideal niche.

A university student, measured eight years ago during his senior year in college, scored brilliantly in every trait which could be measured and I remember feeling that his future was assured, for this testing antedated our understanding of his handicaps. A few months ago he came to take a second group of tests and to discuss a problem which confronted him. At graduation he had entered engineering, as planned, and had persisted for two years before restlessness overwhelmed him. He imagined he wanted experience in the financial world; he wished to see something of the handling of money, and procured a job in an investment brokerage house. Once settled in the new environment he was not satisfied; curbing his uneasiness with difficulty for a while, he finally grasped an opportunity in commission sales, in door-to-door peddling. This gave him freedom, direct returns, and constant contact with people; and he kept at it for three years. But when he came to the Laboratory the second time he had begun to realize that such selling presented only a mediocre prospect, and he wished to discuss the advisability of going on the stage. In these years he had advanced little beyond the day he graduated. The parrying of restlessness by indiscriminate shifting does not obviate the dissatisfaction provoked by an overabundance of aptitudes.


The multi-aptitude student disparages didactic advice. He knows his ability, feels his own superiority to most of those counseling him. He needs not advice, but data on which to base his own conclusions. In order to provide this information the Laboratory put a hundred college freshmen through the tests at the beginning of their course, before the first marking period, and indicated to each abnormally gifted student his place on the general curve, thus showing him impersonally his statistical chance of flunking out. That year the chart for academic standing plotted against capacity displayed no break at the top. The gifted group, warned in advance of their danger, led the class. A presentation of the facts, impersonally, scientifically, is the first helpful step toward a realization of inherent possibilities.

The second step is the conscious utilization of each aptitude which can be measured; and then, as life progresses, the integration of the aptitudes into a complete pattern. Ninety-two chemical elements are recognized by the analytical chemist. Only eight mental elements, facets of the human mind, can be measured by the Human Engineering Laboratory with sufficient accuracy to identify them in the boy or girl of school age. Two more such mental elements certainly exist; and six or seven additional ones are already anticipated. The total may exceed a hundred, for the mind probably surpasses the material world in complexity, but the conscious use of even eight is a step in the right direction.

Engineering aptitude, which seems to be an inherent gift for visualizing three-dimensional structures, is measured by the time consumed in solving four simple but carefully designed mechanical puzzles presented under controlled conditions. These puzzles are solved more rapidly by surgeons than by physicians; the work of the surgeon demands that he visualize structures with speed and absolute surety. They are solved by architects, who must picture a building solidly in three dimensions before it is built. They are solved more rapidly by sculptors than by painters, for sculptors work with solid forms. They are solved by engineers, but rarely by bankers, accountants, and men in the advertising and merchandising fields. Surgeons, architects, sculptors, and engineers, although different in many ways, have one common factor: all deal with solid forms.

With boys engineering aptitude develops much as does physical height. With girls it is almost nonexistent, for only three in one hundred possess it to any great extent. It is dynamic and demands employment. Men who measure high in the trait and who are in work which does not utilize it seem restless and less successful than the Laboratory would expect them to be in the light of their other qualities.

The pupil with engineering aptitude has one of the characteristics of the successful architect, the successful engineer, and the successful surgeon, but may, because of this, find difficulty with school work. Not until he reaches the last year of high school does he ordinarily have an opportunity to use the gift. Until then he tries to visualize Latin and French in three dimensions, as he will later picture constructions in solid geometry and problems in physics. He seeks the whys and wherefores of language, but rebels at learning vocabulary and grammar rules by rote. Vaguely aware of a strength not recognized, he feels dissatisfied and experiences the same sensations as the mature engineer who is drawn by circumstances into a non-engineering occupation.

The remedy must give the boy a feeling of success in school; inspire him with confidence in his own capacity to do school work; and assure his teachers that he has ability, for too often the boy who measures extremely high in engineering aptitude is thought of as slow-witted, partly because of his language difficulties, partly because he insists on thinking through each problem in his own manner. Tinkering with an automobile, building a radio, and doing manual training utilize the ability, but are too far removed from the academic to be satisfactory remedies.

Some five or six years ago a boy who had failed repeatedly in Latin, French, and English was accepted by a preparatory school headmaster who has a gift for handling this engineering type. The boy had planned to adopt a profession which requires advanced education, but had been told that because of his failure to pass the language requirements he should abandon all thought of college. Although only a sophomore in high school, the boy already gave indication of being a failure.

The headmaster planned the boy’s first year in the new school with care: senior physics with advanced laboratory work, although the boy lacked some of the mathematics which is ordinarily thought necessary for such a course; chemistry, more difficult than physics for the engineer, but a science; and geometry — three subjects in which the engineering type can excel. As a fourth course, the boy took English, but was told that he would be judged by his sciences. At the end of the year he took college board examinations in his three engineering subjects and averaged high.

The result was unbelievable. The boy acquired a confidence in himself which he had never before had. But, still more important, the faculty of the school had confidence in him. No teacher is ordinarily interested in struggling with a boy who fails repeatedly in language examinations. But a boy who makes ninety in his sciences is a challenge. The faculty feels that it ought to be able to teach languages to such a boy.

At the end of his year this boy was told that he had succeeded, that there was no question about his success. So far as marks went, he could get them whenever he wished by avoiding languages. But the languages were important and he ought to get them. Two years later the boy not only entered college but took honors in English his freshman year.

Not every boy is fortunate enough to be with a headmaster who can solve a problem with so specialized a programme. But there are partially effective steps within reach of most highschool pupils: to take laboratory physics as soon as possible instead of postponing it for senior year; to take geometry before algebra; and to include the subjects required for entrance into most engineering colleges, solid geometry and trigonometry, physics and chemistry.

Tonal memory, as measured by one of Dr. Carl E. Seashore’s musical tests, is another aptitude, a gift for carrying musical themes in mind. It is possessed by those who play by ear, and approximates what is ordinarily thought of as musical ability. It is essential to a musical conductor and probably also to one who plays with an orchestra. Not every boy should be driven to practise the piano or the violin. For one who scores low in tonal memory, hours of drill may not only waste valuable time, but may be extremely discouraging. But for one who scores high, no matter what occupation or profession he enters, music gives a sense of accomplishment, another means of self-expression, and the satisfaction of using one more aptitude.

Creative imagination is a third aptitude which if not used leads one astray. Actual accomplishments, which require work, materialize so slowly that one with an excessive creative imagination finds it easier to imagine a thing done than to do it. The solution is not to stifle imagination, as is the temptation, but to use it constructively. It plays a part in writing, in advertising, in creative work in music and art, and in original work in science and engineering.

A fourth aptitude, accounting aptitude, is requisite to school success. It is fundamental to accuracy in arithmetic, and plays a part in the solving of all mathematical problems; it is relied upon in the copying of themes and in the construction of neat papers in every subject. Unlike other aptitudes, its employment need not be consciously sought, for it is essential almost from the first day of school.


Only half the time does a multiplicity of gifts include accounting aptitude; and the boy who possesses a wide range but lacks this has not only the school difficulties attendant upon restlessness, but the additional handicap of being without the one characteristic upon which schools call more than upon any other. The boy whose instinctive tendencies make him a poor clerk finds speed and accuracy hard to attain, for the discrepancy between his swift thinking, engendered by other aptitudes, and his tardy recording leads him into ever-recurrent lapses. In copying a theme his thoughts fly ahead of his place on the paper. He races on in his imagination, oblivious of having written only a single line. In solving an algebraic problem he sees the answer before reaching it and fails to record the intervening steps; or, conscious of this tendency, he wonders continually if he has slipped and reviews his work. Even though he finds no mistake he often errs in starting again where he stopped.

Accounting aptitude, which grows irrespective of environment as do other aptitudes, reaches maturity with boys at the age of 18 or 19, and with girls three years earlier, at 15 or 16. Even at maturity boys average lower than girls in this respect, although the difference is not great; but prior to this, between the ages of 12 and 18, the sexes differ strikingly.

Boys, as a group, never equal the level which girls reach as early as 15, and, in addition, boys of this age are still three years short of their own maximum. Between the ages of 12 and 18, boys are ordinarily outstripped by their feminine classmates, who, because of higher accounting aptitude, do their homework more easily and quickly and arrange it more neatly. In this period the boy who is naturally low in this characteristic, who will be low even when adult, is at a disadvantage if compared with girls. If in a coeducational school, he often becomes unreasonably discouraged. Sometimes he gives up all thought of continuing and, disdaining physical labor, turns to a minor clerical job with a forlorn expectation of advancement. Sometimes he plods on with a sense of inferiority which he may never overcome, for low accounting aptitude often causes a boy to be considered mentally slow. Actually it means little more than a slowness in routine clerical work. Outside the clerical field its lack is unimportant; but this is difficult to explain to the discouraged boy of this age.

There are many reasons both for and against coeducation. Each parent must make the final decision. But, so far as this one characteristic is concerned, the multi-aptitude boy, with low accounting aptitude, belongs in a boys’ school. In these ages a classroom comparison with girls exaggerates too dishearteningly this weak spot.

When accounting aptitude is sufficiently low to cause serious school difficulties, four remedial steps may be taken. They are briefly: correction of eyesight, separation of thinking from its recording, greater speed, and intelligent selection of courses.

Psychological tests have not yet reached the stage at which they invariably measure the desired characteristic, but, except for entirely uncorrected eye difficulties, the test for accounting aptitude ordinarily discloses an aptitude in the true sense of the word. The records of the Laboratory show that several times in the last few years the school marks of a low-accounting-aptitude boy improved strikingly after an eye examination and correction by proper glasses. Occasionally a reëxamination and a change of glasses achieved a similar result.

The second remedial step for the boy whose clerical aptitude is low in comparison with his other characteristics is the separation of his thinking from its recording. He should deliberately lay his pencil aside, think through to the end of the theme or the algebra problem, determine upon the procedure without the burden of paper or pencil. Then he should perform the clerical manipulation rapidly and with unquestioning confidence.

The third remedial step comprises the deliberate acceleration of clerical operations. ‘Slow but sure’ sounds true. The phrase carries conviction by alliteration. Unfortunately, however, its truth evaporates under scientific scrutiny.

Just how rapidly can work be done accurately? The time expended in comparing two parallel columns of numbers has been recorded for many individuals and the errors made by each counted. The shorter the time, the fewer the errors. The fastest individuals prove the surest. Exceptions turn up; an occasional person rushes through oblivious of mistakes, and another plods cautiously without them. But, en masse, quick workers are accurate, sluggish ones inaccurate. Lapses inevitably inspire the caution, ‘Slow down; be more careful’; and yet, if the laws which have been found in the Laboratory hold in the classroom, such directions mislead and hinder. The corrective is not time, not even care, but speed. A boy must drive his pencil to keep pace with his mind; not, as so often happens, slow down his thinking to his pencil rate.

The last step is an intelligent avoidance of certain school courses. Although all school work demands accounting aptitude, some phases employ it more than others. Success in typing, stenography, bookkeeping, and accounting rests primarily upon it, and courses in these subjects should ordinarily be avoided by one whose weakest spot is clerical accuracy. Although they are often ideal for one who excels in accounting aptitude, for one deficient in this characteristic they are discouraging; they do not alter his inherent ability, and ordinarily do not develop facility rapidly enough to warrant the time which they consume.


Thus one might review in turn the eight aptitudes which can be measured, showing some of the uses to which each may be put. Then one should discuss each combination. Creative imagination and engineering aptitude are the characteristics of the inventor; and the schoolboy who scores high in these two should be given an opportunity to use his inventive ability perhaps in the solution of original problems in solid geometry and physics, perhaps in constructing new laboratory apparatus, perhaps in rediscovering for himself some of the scientific discoveries of the past. Creative imagination and inductive reasoning are the characteristics of the writer, and the boy or girl who scores high in these should be encouraged to write not only for his or her classes but for the school paper. Tonal memory is a characteristic of the musician, but low accounting aptitude may make it difficult to learn to read music. One who scores high in tonal memory but low in accounting aptitude should sing or choose an instrument with only a single clef.

Eight independent aptitudes combine in several hundred different ways. Each of these combinations probably fits an individual ideally for some particular type of work. About a hundred combinations have been studied sufficiently to give an idea of their significance, and research is under way on others. Ultimately each combination will be understood and it will be possible to guide everyone toward a field which will use each aptitude but overtax none. In the meantime, the too widely gifted pupil must be recognized early in his school career and a higher standard set for him, one more apt to require all of his gifts, for lack of early incentive to work is one of the difficulties. During grammar school years a pupil progresses necessarily on the strength of inherent ability. Without factual background, he places himself by quickness of wit and by the ease with which he grasps new concepts. As a result, the multi-sided youngster hears only praise during his formative years. Without exertion on his part he obtains good grades and rewards of merit. As the years pass, the lowerability classmates fall back or shift to special schools, and drop out altogether in high school. Before the first semester of college the student body, originally a heterogeneous assortment, has become selected. No longer do any few rise markedly above the group. In consequence, the basis of faculty judgment shifts from ability to attainment. A boy receives little credit for his innate gifts, but survives solely because of the completed work which he turns in. One whose limitations made it difficult for him to enter college continues under the new conditions. One at the top in aptitudes, with no previous challenge to develop sound habits of work, almost certainly fails when weighed by the altered criteria.

Although the Laboratory aims to seek the natural propensities of an individual, it has found a simple measure of pure knowledge, an English vocabulary test, convenient in showing the contrast between inborn qualities, won without labor, and grasp of facts achieved by study. A youngster, just twelve, recently excelled in all aptitudes, a brilliant boy. As he tried the aptitude-measuring devices and found himself transcending others of his age, he accepted his position at the top without comment. Not until he reached the English vocabulary did he fall to the bottom, possibly already too far below in accumulated knowledge to overtake the average person. In school he had always done reasonably well, ingratiating himself by intrinsic worth. Only the sharp isolation of his factual acquirements from his inherent ability demonstrated the scantiness of his achievements.

The answer is more work rather than less. Such a boy must be challenged, not usually by skipping a grade, not by pushing him into advanced work so rapidly that he misses fundamental principles, but by giving him more difficult illustrative problems, problems which show the simple principle but which tax his ingenuity to solve them. The many-aptitude boy too often sees at a glance the answer to the ordinary classroom problem and never learns to use fundamental laws as tools. As a result, when later in life he encounters problems which cannot be solved at sight he has no technique for attacking them and gives up without effort. In the last years of high school and in college, a teacher needs courage to heap sufficient work on a boy already failing to compass his success. But success ensues often enough to warrant the procedure if the diagnosis is more than a chimerical impression of brilliance. In one case, a daring headmaster outlined a programme whereby a boy who had already been dismissed from two preparatory schools could complete in a year nearly two years’ work, enough to enable him to enter college, and could carry at the same time heavy responsibilities in extracurricular activities, an impossible task for a normal person. Yet this boy finished the year triumphantly.

The piling on of additional assignments is not always a panacea for low school marks. A prudent selection of courses obviates some, alleviation of clerical chores obviates others; the stiffening of standards meets only the one impediment, a multiplicity of aptitudes. The efficacy of so drastic a therapeutic measure hangs on the accuracy of the diagnosis. Under such carefully controlled conditions as obtain in the Laboratory, scientific instruments disclose the presence or absence of these isolated aptitudes as early as at ten years of age. At this stage a few schools now assign more difficult problems to the exceptional boy and so instill normal work habits early in life before their lack conduces to serious misadventure.


The reader, with a son in distress, unfairly criticizes some teacher or perhaps the entire educational system, not realizing that, while a school may cater each year to one or two extreme cases, the process cannot be carried far without handicapping the larger, normal group. The exceptional boy must train himself to hold his own standards sufficiently high. He may abate his instability by creating a use for every aptitude. He may aim to head his class; but it is irksome to plod through a mass of work which for him is uninspiring. A more effective solution involves an altered attitude, a new philosophy. He should, early in his school career, discover and prepare himself to solve some difficult problem, perhaps some tangled social question, perhaps some knotty scientific difficulty, perhaps some abstruse mental puzzle.

During the decade from 1920 to 1980 most college seniors expected to step, upon graduation, into some readymade position. As a result, they learned in too many instances to regard education as preparation for a job. Because so few of these exist to-day, many of the younger generation face what seems to them a hopeless outlook. They fail to realize that, while there are no jobs, they have but to open any newspaper to see problems displayed in profusion. Serious nervous and mental breakdowns are still numerous, despite the mass of research under way in psychiatry; automobile accidents increase in the face of improvements in mechanical devices; the problem of crime and its prevention is still unsolved; an ideal form of government as yet eludes mankind.

A spectacular bridge completed, a great dam finished, a new vehicular tunnel opened, may for a moment give the impression that any goal can be achieved. But there are more unsolved and as yet unsolvable problems to-day than perhaps ever before. Highly gifted boys and girls fail for lack of setting themselves sufficiently difficult tasks early in life before the necessities of job hunting and holding engross the attention. Since both school work and the first minor task at which one must start are unsatisfactory incentives, the highly gifted youth should tackle a social, scientific, or educational problem serious enough to tax every ability which he can marshal to its better understanding.

This research into the measurement of aptitudes was undertaken with the purpose of discovering the characteristics of successful men and women. But even to-day the Laboratory cannot define success. It can tell a boy or a girl his or her relative chances of earning a living in a number of different types of work. It can tell the chances of sticking to each type of work for a period of five years. It cannot tell the chances of finding real happiness in the work, which after all is true success.

Yet, whenever the Human Engineering Laboratory has an opportunity to measure an adult who seems in some intangible way truly successful, who seems to have found real happiness in work, it is always someone who has discovered a use for every aptitude which he possesses, who makes use of his entire range of abilities, who lives life to the full; and the Laboratory has taken a first step, a scientific step, toward helping each boy and girl toward this particular type of happiness.