Surely the learning environment already accounts for the needs of those who fail. Teachers reframe tasks, students source help from adults or their peers or online. Failure to comprehend, failure to succeed, failure to complete a task – they happen all the time and are normal experiences.
And yet nobody embraces failure willingly or easily. The negative impact of repeated failure accounts for much of the increasing disenchantment experienced by many students in schools. It is hard not to personalise failure. It contributes to students’ developing poor self-esteem and makes them risk-averse. Many school-leavers choose not to engage with learning ever again, if they can possibly help it.
It is inevitable to be frustrated when we take something seriously and fail to achieve it. But there is a lot that can be done to counter the negative effects of failure and as educationalists, we should do everything we can to share ways of de-personalising failure and making it less corrosive.
One way is to encourage the mindset that whenever learning occurs, some failure is inevitable – and it must be acceptable. A real challenge cannot possibly be achieved successfully first time. Occasional failure is paramount or else no real progress can be said to be occurring. Failure is not a form of criticism to be personalised. It is a perfectly normal experience shared by everybody at some stage. Famously, Thomas Edison found 10,000 ways that didn’t make the lightbulb light up. Failure can even carry with it some benefits. Steve Jobs speaks of being fired by Apple and finding the creativity behind the experience: “the lightness of being a beginner, less sure about everything”.
Although culturally we believe winner takes all, winners lose more frequently than they win.
Failure is another step en route to a better solution – it is not the end product, representing a final outcome; after all in real life there is rarely a best and final outcome. If students gain some understanding of why they did what they did when unsuccessful, they begin to develop a framework of insightful critical analysis.
The experience of failure helps develop learners’ resilience, when handled sensitively, and encourages students to reassess what they have done so far. What made them do that? What had they read? What previous experience was an idea based on? What can be unpicked from a gut instinct? What new understanding emerges when allowed?
The strengths behind a given idea can be retained and turned into the foundation blocks for a new approach. Failing gives students the opportunity to review what information and assumptions underlie their thinking.
An attitude of conjecture is a beautiful thing: all students can buy into it if it is expected of them – beginning to work on part of a solution, regardless, without any idea what the final answer will look like.
Educationalists must be empowered to develop learning conditions in which students learn to thrive in a changing world. Educationalists have the opportunity to champion new ideas and celebrate them. This means that the learning journey, all the unsuccessful steps along the way, must also be acknowledged.
Paradoxically, we turn the tables on what is right by embracing what is wrong: in our workshops, it is our aim to create a safe environment for failure and to develop a mindset that prepares students for continuous improvement, meeting the demands and expectations of the twenty-first century economy.