Teach children to fail well and fast

17 Aug

Summer is a time of tests and examinations and autumn of league tables.  Throughout the year we have inspections.  All three have one thing in common.   Achievement.   God help children if they fail and thus threaten their schools/academies with a lower rank on the national league table.  God help schools/academies if they fail their Ofsted inspections.   The education culture in our country appears to be obsessed with success and terrified of failure.   I question whether this is the culture we should be promoting.

Education is sometimes compared to a three-legged stool.  The first leg constitutes the disciplines/subjects that are taught, often, discretely, subjects such as mathematics, history, geography and music.  The second leg is each of the cross-curricular themes that help develop children in a rounded manner – such as expression/language and the ability to think.   The third leg is the way education is promoted, e.g. how teachers teach (e.g. telling and teamwork) and enabling children to learn (e.g. discovery, imitation and observation).  The late Professor Ted Wragg of Exeter University ascribed a different metaphor to this calling it the cuboid curriculum.

But there is a fourth leg (going by my analogy) or dimension (going by Professor Wragg’s one) – i.e. the qualities that we wish to promote within our children, a key one being resilience.   Intrinsic within resilience is managing and coping with failure.   Because every school/academy wishes to be at the top of its league table, governors, headteachers and staff do everything it takes to succeed.  This desire is both, intrinsically and extrinsically, passed on to the pupils.   And when they fail, their skies come tumbling down on them – as it did with chicken-licken in the toddler’s story.

Sir James Dyson, British inventor and industrial designer, learnt what it was to fail.   He built 5,126 prototypes to create a working device for his famous bagless vacuum cleaner.   He told Matthew Syed, the writer and journalist: “That was my advantage.  I had the resilience to keep going when others might have given up.  In fact, I wanted to fail fast, the quicker to learn.  That is how technology advances.   People trying things, making mistakes and gaining fresh knowledge. Failure is indispensable to success in any complex field.”

It took Edison over 2,000 attempts to invent the light bulb.  After he had failed 2,000 times, someone asked him what he had achieved.  He said: “I have learnt 2,000 ways in which not to invent the bulb.”   He persevered and eventually succeeded.

Children are not born to be terrified of failing.    See youngsters learning to walk and toppling over.   They pick themselves up and try to continue on two legs.   Watch a child playing football for the first time and mistiming a kick.  She/he does not throw in the sponge but goes for the ball again to connect with the foot.   In fact, children are so mindless of failing, they often go to the other extreme and rush across a road without heeding the traffic and here is where the adult’s intervention becomes necessarily leading the parent/teacher to become the guide on the side (rather than the sage on the stage).

As they progress up the year groups at school/academy, the competition becomes fierce so that they are hesitant about tackling new challenges fearing adverse judgements when they fail.   At school, I developed an awful stammer because I was frightened of standing up and making a fool of myself in class when asked to read or answer a question.   It was only through the encouragement of a teacher who threatened fire and thunder on my peers if they mocked, that I gradually lost my inhibitions and began to overcome my speech epidemic.   This was allied to my losing my fear of failing.

Social media does not help.  Youngsters (like adults) want to be successful – in singing, dancing and, of course, how they look.   Programmes like the X Factor promote unattainable aspirations and a desire to be famous for 15 minutes.  Consequently, pupils are fearful of raising their hands in class and answering questions in case they give the wrong answer and look silly.

Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Larry Page and Sergey Brin (Google) and Bill Gates (Microsoft) have commanded the virtual world because they were not afraid to fail.  When they did fail, they tried and tried again.    Taking a leaf off the books of the founders of these establishments, the bosses of tech companies now hire people based on their soft skills, such as their ability to take risks and deal with change, rather than potential employees’ performances in examinations and tests.  Laszlo Bock, ex-head of people operations at Google, said, when he was at Google: “We look for people who can not only solve today’s problems, but can also solve whatever unknown problems may come up in the future.”

Mathew Syed, the author of You Are Awesome: Find Your Confidence and Dare to be Brilliant at (Almost) Anything, wrote in The Times: “It’s the children who are most successful in class who often struggle most with failure. They are so used to being praised for flawless performances, and getting lots of nice, big ticks, that they can’t cope with setbacks when they eventually come along.”

The fear of failure is the silent killer of aspiration.   To deal with this, some schools and academies are holding “failure weeks” in which parents and members of the public are invited to talk about how they have failed and what they have learnt from it.   The former Head of Wimbledon High in South London, said when she was the Headteacher: “Our pupils are successful in their examinations, but they can overreact when things go wrong.  We want them to be courageous.  It sounds paradoxical, but we dare them to fail.”

In his novella, Worstward Ho, Samuel Beckett wrote: “Ever tried? Ever failed?  No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”   And Winston Churchill, our great wartime leader, said: “Success is not final. Failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.”

Researchers have provided the following data which we ignore at our peril.

  • 48% of children aged 12 to 16 in England feel sad or anxious at least once a week.
  • 11%of children aged 12 to 16 are worried about getting enough ‘likes’ or responses on social media.
  • 6%of primary school children want to work in social media or gaming, the fourth most popular career choice.
  • 44%of young people in the UK aged 16 to 25 fear there will be fewer job opportunities for their generation over the next three years.
  • 21% of young people aged 16 to 25 think that their life will amount to nothing no matter how hard they try.
  • 59% of young people aged 16 to 25 cite the political climate as making them feel anxious about their future.

All those working in our education system and parents must do what we can to make children see that the stumbling blocks of failings can be converted into the stepping stones of successes.

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