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.

Book launch speech, 29th June 2019: Hannah Valenzuela, Senior Lecturer in Education, University of Derby

Monday the third of June was a busy day in my office at university. At nine, all the students’ results were released online. At three minutes past nine, our phones started ringing and inboxes starting pinging. There was anger and disappointment from some, along with tears and demands to know what they had paid nine thousand pounds for this year. What these students had in common was a failure to get the grades they had wanted. 

We teach our undergraduates about a two-stage response to their module grades. The first is the emotional response, which varies from person to person, as Caris talks about in her book, dependent on things like personality traits and previous experiences of failure. This can be a positive experience too, of course – the tills ringing in the student union bar testify to this joy. 

We encourage them to see this as the first part of the response, not the whole thing. The second part we call the academic response, the analytical response. Engage with the feedback on your assignments, we say. Ask questions of your work, figure out what to do next. As Caris says, don’t let your emotional response be the whole thing. 

Some students pay little attention to feedback. They seem to think that they did their best, and even if the result was disappointing, they could not have done any better. In order to respond analytically, we need to believe that improvement is possible. 

You might have heard of Growth Mindset. It’s a buzzword phrase in many schools these days, and based on a theory from a psychologist called Carole Dweck. It hasn’t had great results in schools for various reasons, but the theory itself is pretty sound. Dweck says that, in a nutshell, people tend either to have a Fixed Mindset or a Growth Mindset. With a fixed mindset, we think that we are born with a certain amount of intelligence, and that’s it. We can only do as well as we can do, and there’s not much point in trying any harder. Of course, genetics dictate our abilities and intelligence to some extent. However, a growth mindset understands the brain as a responsive organ, the mind as something which can be nurtured and improved, our abilities as something which can grow. 

I’ve seen quite a lot of fixed mindset: those students who don’t engage with feedback. Students in top sets at school who get very frustrated when they fail at something, because they think they should be able to do it straight away. Students in bottom sets – I’ve been told, “Miss, I can’t do this, I’m in set 7 and I’m stupid”. Setting students seems to contribute quite a lot to fixed mindsets, actually, with very little payoff in positive terms. But I digress. 

Growth mindset is popular in education, and it’s easy to see why. 

My children and I have been learning piano from a teacher, Jayne, who illustrates this better than anyone I’ve ever seen. As this is a talk about education, I’m going to go teachery on you for a minute. 

Hands up please, if you’ve ever learnt a musical instrument. Keep those hands up if you’ve ever made a mistake while playing your piano, or guitar, or panpipes, or whatever. Keep your hands up if you’ve experienced making the same mistake over and over. 

Frustrating, isn’t it? And we tend to go back, and practice, and practice, and practice. Or give up and have a glass of wine instead. 

Jayne says, Ah! A mistake! How interesting! Let’s investigate it! Ah! She welcomes mistakes, embraces them. She says, How do you feel? Notice your feelings. Then we investigate. Then we discuss strategies, such as changing the fingering, practising a stretch, calming the mind to improve concentration, singing the first line of music in your head before starting the piece. Then we try out the strategy, and see what happens. 

Jayne’s teaching embodies growth mindset. Many people think growth mindset is about working harder, and certainly there is an important role for meaningful practice in anything that we teach or learn. But learning from failure is also about identifying strategies, and learning from a more experienced peer or mentor, a teacher or friend. Reducing it to working harder is often a recipe for failing again.

So, failing intelligently, failing with a growth mindset, can help children and adults to learn. But what about the bigger picture? 

Across the country, Roma, traveller, and Black Caribbean children are far more likely to be excluded from school than white children. Boys more likely than girls. Children with special educational needs than those without. 

This week, a report came out from the Social Mobility Commission which examined the pathways into the powerful jobs in this country: senior judges, senior politicians, newspaper columnists, diplomats. The report says that although only 7% of our children attend private school and 1% attend Oxford or Cambridge, 39% of the elite group had been privately educated, and 24% had attended Oxbridge. 

These two examples suggest that there are failures at organisation, at system level in education. When children who belong to certain social groups can do better or worse in education simply by belonging to those social groups, and have better or worse life chances because of it, something isn’t right. Individual growth mindset, intelligent failure, hard work, strategies, analysis will only get individuals so far. We have a system and organisations which are driven by targets, results, and where failure to meet those is punished quickly, by dismissal of leaders at all levels. The analysis, the Ah, let’s investigate! approach is often missing. 

I’m working with a twelve-year-old boy in my research at the moment. He is in a group which is less likely to do well in GCSEs compared to the average, and my job is to investigate why this might be happening. On paper, I’m responding intelligently to failure in our education system. But here’s the thing. When I asked this boy if he’d like to be part of my research, I explained that it’s important to hear the voices of children in research, to understand why things are happening the way they do from his point of view. He readily agreed to take part, but on one condition: that I sit next to him in science lessons and help him to learn. He identified his failure in science, found a strategy (my help), and implemented it. He can’t wait around for reflection, analysis, and big-picture change: the failure that affects him and other children like him has an impact on his life chances, and that, for him, is urgent. 

For me, that means that it’s hard to lead this sort of analysis, to use these systemic failures as a springboard for growth, but that does not mean it should not or cannot be done. Let’s use failure in education, whether it’s a misplaced musical note, a mediocre essay grade, or a larger and more intractable issue of inequality, to improve.