Failure is the cancer of good learning and teaching

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.

Sir Edmund Hillary

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.






4 thoughts on “Failure is the cancer of good learning and teaching

  1. Although “failure is the stepping stone of success,” many genius have succeeded in their real life. Tamil Nadu’s (South India) ex-CM, Mr. M.Karunanidhi who did not complete his Year 10 but has written about 400 books in Tamil and many has done Ph.D on his books. Although he is 93 now, still he reads a lot and has been a very powerful orator. The current generation due to the technological influence has lost the desire of reading and its benefits.

  2. Hey Greg, long time reader first time commenter… 😉
    A phrase I use regularly when teaching, coaching and parenting is, “The first time you do anything, you’re rubbish! And often a few times after that too.”
    I’m all in with you. “Failure” is an inherent part of the learning process and has to be embraced. A child tries to walk and falls over. It’s feedback. A data point.
    Dweck (perhaps most notably) and others have researched how the framing of assessment and feedback can impact performance and growth.
    With that in mind, has there been too much talk about the “clever country” instead of the “we spent a lot of time thinking about it” country? Or the “I can see how the drafting and feedback process has helped to refine your product” country?
    Do you think the big picture education conversation in Australia has an image maintenance issue that impacts the ability for growth?

    1. Definitely. There is a fear of a
      new narrative which values collaboration and performance over competition and testing. Testing only has never improved learning. It only simplifies the complexity of evaluation

  3. True learning is about developing a growth mindset in our students whereby we never reach the destination but discern the next step in the breadth of our learning. Teachers need to model their own growth mindset to students. This means showing students that we are ongoing learners and seek new learning. Some of our teachers today acknowledged that they let students see them fail at times eg in spelling, acknowledging that failure is inevitable at times. The thing is to celebrate success and discovery and not block a growth mindset.

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