Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Failure . . . a key educational experience

As a teenager one of my favourite reads was Stephen Pile's The Book of Heroic Failures, which distilled failure into humour and thus made it fit for human consumption. Failure may be funny when served with a side order of schadenfreude, but in the real world, it really isn't all that popular at all.

Perhaps it has always been this way, perhaps I'm just noticing it more, or perhaps it's a product of the easy A-grade culture, but I am increasingly conscious that parents don't like their children failing. And I'm not talking here about the fundamentals - no one wants their child to fail their A-levels or to fail to get the grades for a chosen university course - but parents increasingly intervene when there is a slightest blip from the flawless path of success. Here in the independent sector, there is a growing constituency who believe, just because they are paying fees, that they are buying success. We are in danger of falling into the trap of creating a false universe where the only thing that matters is success. (And we in schools are just as guilty -  we celebrate success in every assembly, on every website post and in every Speech Day address.  When did we last celebrate a failure?)
As parents and educators we want our children to grow and thrive. We want them to have a range of experiences that develop them as into mature, thoughtful, productive, independent adults. We naturally want to protect our children. But protecting children from harm is one thing, protecting them from failure is quite a different matter.

Real life - especially very successful life - is made up of both success and failure. In "bigging up" our children, we are neglecting to see the value of failure as an educational experience. If we are to equip young people for the real world beyond the security of our homes and schools, we need to give them the strength and resilience to cope with failure. Failure is only a bad thing if we let it defeat us. It is how we respond to failure that matters most - indeed, it is what my parents' generation would call "character-building" (a phrase we rarely hear anymore - why?). 
One of the consequences of the "succeed, but don't fail" culture is that young people become risk averse. The much-quoted research of Carol Dweck at Stamford University has demonstrated that the young people who have a "fixed mindset" are less likely to cope with failure and more likely to take risks academically, than those who have a "growth mindset" (See Carol Dweck's Mindset). What is clear from Dweck's research is that we need to encourage young people to take risks, to allow them to fail, and to teach them to learn from their failures - thus developing resilience. (There are excellent summaries of Dweck's research in both Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers and Matthew Syed's Bounce).
The last word here must go to Michael Jordan in his iconic Nike Advert (which makes a great school assembly!).  

"I've missed more than nine thousand shots in my career. I've lost almost three hundred games. Twenty-six times I've been trusted to take the game-winning shot, and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life . . . . . . . and that is why I succeed."
Further Reading:

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