According to folklore, Albert Einstein failed his college entrance exam, Walt Disney was told he lacked creativity and Bill Gates dropped out of school. While it didn’t stop them achieving in their respective fields, I am left wondering why we eschew failure in education.
My younger brother told me recently that he felt like he had ‘failed’ at school – a belief he has carried for more than 30 years! The prevailing view in education that failure is a negative experience does so much damage to kids’ confidence. Sir Ken Robinson says this is because we have created school systems were mistakes are the worst things you can make and children are afraid of failing.
Failure is the cancer of good learning and teaching. This reductionist approach defines learning as a set of numerical or letter grades that can be manipulated, often misused and generally misunderstood. The high stakes test of the Higher School Certificate – the gold standard of learning – is even more misunderstood in its practical application. It is not a description of the achievement of a student across 13 years. Rather it is a ranking process derived by adding together internal assessments and exam marks, then running them through a ‘black box’. The public perception is that anything above 60 is good, between 50-60 and you’re OK. Anything below 50 and you’ve failed school.
We need to be very careful about how assessment is understood and used because of the tendency to equate it with test scores. A better way to talk about student achievement is to concentrate on performance. In sporting competitions, points are awarded for technical skill but they are also balanced against points for non-technical skills. The question is what would we include as the sum total of performance in education?
Sir Edmund Hillary’s feat on Mt Everest was shaped by learning from past failures. Reflecting on his momentous achievement, Hillary was quoted saying: “I was just an enthusiastic mountaineer of modest abilities who was willing to work quite hard and had the necessary imagination and determination.”
Every student is a potential Edmund Hillary with their own Everest to conquer. Learning must be a celebration of failure, discovery and success.