When Failing at School is Good

Most of us grew up wanting to succeed at school. ‘Pass’ meant we had done well and ‘Fail’ poorly.

We would find what the pass mark was and, if inclined to do the bear minimum of work, seek to at least reach that level. 

We quickly learned that teachers were unhappy when we failed: that we might need to do extra work and in some bygone days, we may even have been harshly treated for ‘failure’. 

For some, fear of ‘failure’ became motivation to work hard, but this was hardly a good emotional approach and in some cases made for an unpleasant schooling experience.

The disabling nature of all this is that no one looked at ‘failure’ or ‘failing’ as in any way positive. 

No one encouraged a child that tried and failed, making them feel that they had done better than children who hadn’t even tried at all. The high jumper never makes any progress when they sail over the bar: it’s when they practise at heights where the bar is likely to be hit that they learn technique and approach that maximises their performance. The child who never attempts to paint differently or write in a new style, or read a tricky book, with longer words and more complicated sentence structure, is destined to plateau. 

I recall when moving from teaching Year 6 to Year 2, I had an extremely able child in my class, who had been doing the equivalent of sailing over the bar all her school life: mastering books, shining at arithmetic and artwork that was regularly admired. She wasn’t especially competitive and had no jealousy of others’ success. But in my year there were occasions when she tried things that didn’t work out and had tests where she was not top. Whereas for many children this had been part of the learning experience, for her this was such a new experience that she felt like she had hit a wall. It was as if this strange and new obstacle of failure had appeared in her path which she couldn’t negotiate. It took time for her to see that failure, as much as success, is a valid experience and part of us improving – providing we learn through it. Failing is OK – it can be a positive thing and not the end of the world. She soon recovered and made good progress in the year. She was perhaps learning the truth enclosed in Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem with those lines: “If you can with meet triumph and disaster and treat these two imposters just the same….” Except of course she was learning that failure was not a disaster – for her, it was part of the triumph. 

The author is an experienced Primary School Teacher.