Succeeding at failure

John Dewey recognised its importance when he said ‘failure is instructive’.  Most success stories are crafted from failure, which is why organisations are beginning to recognise the intrinsic rewards that come from understanding and learning from it.

Harvard Business Review Magazine has devoted its April issue to the ‘f’ word – failure.  There are some pearls of wisdom for schools in the articles by Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Amy Edmondson, Francesca Gino and Gary Pisano.

Kanter suggests that teams ‘that are immersed in a culture of accountability, collaboration and initiative are more likely to believe that they can weather any storm.’

These are the cornerstones of successful school communities – the ability to discuss (without judgment) what went wrong and why, to accept and respect differing points of view and to lift the capacity of team members.

When I read this, I thought of a comment Michael Fullan made last year about success and schools:  ‘if the model of success isn’t working for a school then change it.  Once teachers feel part of something successful, they will feel valued and they won’t think data is being used to judge.  Data will then be used to unpack what is or isn’t happening and new strategies (and success) will follow.’

Failure is as much a part of education as any other life pursuit and yet there is a prevailing culture of wanting to avoid, defend and judge failure.  Unfortunately, this message filters down to students.

Many school communities don’t test theories, investigate what went wrong and potentially mitigate future mistakes.  Perhaps they don’t know how and that is something  school and system leaders need to address.  Perhaps we have something to learn from business but as HBR illustrate, the lessons are universal.

If we think the lessons learned from failure make better businesses and education systems, then what would it do for our students?

Sir Ken Robinson speaking at TED answers that:

“Kids will take a chance…they are not frightened of being wrong but if you’re not prepared to be wrong you’ll never come up with anything original.  By the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity.  They have become frightened of being wrong.  We stigmatise mistakes and we are now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make. The result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacity.”

Can we afford not to succeed at failure?


5 thoughts on “Succeeding at failure

  1. Hi Greg,
    I agree with the need for the 21st century learner to have time and space to ‘tinker’. Both Michael Duffy’s essay ‘Try, Try Again’ in the Sydney Morning Herald (19/2/11) and Dr John Seeley Brown’s interview in the PBS doco Digital Media (thanks to your blog for the tip) discussed the virtues of trying, failing and trying again. This is also linked to Carol Dweck’s theories of how we perceive our intelligence. She found that students with a “growth mindset” were more likely to persevere once they had failed at a task.
    Meaghan

  2. Learning from failure, mistakes and being prepared to be self critical is so important. Teachers are so often quick to point out when a child fails, makes a mistake, does something wrong and yes this is part of the duty. However, my experience with some teachers in Catholic education has been that they cannot accept their own imperfection. Good teachers and school leaders should not ‘avoid, defend’ hide and blame when things go wrong. A good leader or teacher should be able to reflect and consider initiatives, they should not shy from accountability because of pride and fear. Facing up to failure is part of learning to do a better job and be a better person.

    1. Helen, the experience isn’t just limited to teachers in Catholic schools. I think education systems generally eschew making mistakes. Ken Robinson talks about this in the context of children’s ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’ attitude. You’re absolutely correct failure is the antecedent to success. But how do we make the cultural shift?

  3. Yes Greg, this difficulty of adults facing failure or having healthy self-criticism is not only found in Catholic Edu. Learning not only from failure but always being open to learning as an adult I think could help improve edu. At the moment I am reading Alfie Kohn’s Beyond Discipline: From Compliance to Community and I am interested in teachers being less autocratic and more democratic with students. Maybe allowing more opinion and responsibility is part of making the cultural shift.

  4. I love the title of this blog.

    Somehow we have “educated” our naturally persevering children and turned them into failure-averse beings. I used to ask my Maths students how many of them still crawled around instead of walking. Some hands would go up in order to muck about but when I give them the line – ““I suck at walking so I am not going to be bothered trying,” said no baby ever” – they all get the analogy.

    Too many kids seem to be happy to say, “I suck at Maths”. Yet as babies they all know that they fell repeatedly and got up to try again and that is why they can walk, run and play any sport they want. So I ask them, “Why is it different with Maths?” If they get something wrong, it is not about them. It is about the strategy they used and they need to adopt a different one next time around. It is only by trying and failing and then adopting and testing new strategies that we learn how to do something well.

    The instinct of the child is that there will always be things that are not yet learnt and failure needs to occur to achieve mastery. That is, as Carol Dweck says, the Growth Mindset’s ‘power of yet’.Sir Ken Robinson eloquently stated that being prepared to fail was a prerequisite for coming up with new ideas. In business start-up circles they talk about ‘failing forward’ and often success is measured by the number of failures encountered and overcome.

    As you say, we need to re-energise the ‘power of yet’ and encourage students to do what they do naturally – creatively fail forward. Bring it on!

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