There’s been quite a bit of media coverage on the decision by Ivanhoe Girls’ Grammar School to introduce ‘Failure Week’ as a way of normalising failure. The rationale behind this was a growing concern about student well-being and the negative impact ‘failure’ was having on students’ self-confidence and achievement. Former Labor leader Mark Latham referred to it as ‘another piece of PC nonsense’ and asked what it had to do with the teaching of English, maths and science. Actually, failure has a lot to do with it. Any school that acknowledges and even celebrates failure needs to be applauded but celebrating failure for one week out of a school year is not enough to counter the cultural tide.
What the media coverage has done though is shine a light on one of the biggest flaws in the current model of schooling. Sir Ken Robinson in his TED talk on creativity articulated the problem – we have turned failure into an illicit activity to be avoided at all costs. Our schools have institutionalised failure. We design assessments to sift, sort and judge students’ capabilities and intelligences then end up with this ridiculous notion that students pass or fail NAPLAN or the HSC. In short we are actively discouraging the very thing that schools are expected to do. The answer to the problem is not structural. Sanctioning certain times to allow young people to experience failure in their learning hides a much deeper problem. And this is that we see learning in terms of competition and as with competition, there are always winners and losers. We even believe that we can quantify down to a decimal point, the degree of that failure.
At what point in history did we think it appropriate or valuable to impose limits on learning? Likely well before Thomas Edison went to school. We should not be surprised that Edison was home-schooled because his mother felt formal schooling was too rigid. Edison typifies the value of failure as fundamental to learning. We should be grateful that he never gave up after his 745th attempt at inventing the electric light!
Schools like the Evangelical School Berlin Centre (ESBC) represent a new wave of schooling in which students are encouraged to experiment. They are supported to make their own decisions about the direction of their learning and to see failure as more valuable than success. Schools like these are the 21st century versions of Edison’s research lab where learning is not a pass or fail but a joyful life-long experience.