Failure is not an option (but it should be)

Is our education system set up so that students are afraid to fail – and could their learning be suffering as a result?

Joshua Morris

Joshua Morris


"If you fall down, get back up again," was one my father's favourite phrases when I was growing up, although my understanding of this didn't really get past the literal until I was much older.

But has this philosophy become absent from our classrooms?

Writing in the 1 June issue of Tes, Chris Parr asks whether our obsessive results-based system of accountability has driven failure out of our education system, creating an atmosphere in which young people are afraid to fail.

Have we decided that an attractive picture of results and feigned success is better than embracing the failures it took to get there? Is the pressure not to fail undermining learning, Parr asks, and if so, what can we do about it?

Xiaodong Lin-Siegler, an associate professor at Columbia University, is heading up a new research centre in the US that will try to coordinate research on how failure affects motivation and learning. Her research has demonstrated that high school students could improve their science grades by learning about the personal struggles and failed experiments of great scientists, such as Albert Einstein and Marie Curie.

“Despite the universal belief that failure is the mother of success, my observation is that [Western] schools and parents are doing everything to prevent students from experiencing failures,” says Lin-Siegler.

No room for failure

Other studies support Lin-Siegler’s view. A study of 40,000 US, British and Canadian college students, published last year in the Psychological Bulletin (Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill), found that the majority were experiencing “multidimensional perfectionism”: the pressure to meet increasingly high standards, driven by unrealistically high expectations coming from all sides, including social media, parents and schools.

As a result, writes Parr, "failure is simply not seen as an option for many young people today".

Accountability, he suggests, may be at the heart of the problem for schools. When the school is afraid to fail, the teachers are afraid to fail and inevitably the students become afraid to fail, too. 

However, incorporating failure as part of the learning process needs to be done in a balanced way that protects student wellbeing, experts advise.

Clare Erasmus, head of the technology faculty and head of mental wellbeing at Brighton Hill Community School in Hampshire argues that the proper support structures are crucial if failure is to be embraced.

“Teaching our students to fail or setting them up to fail has to be [done] in a safe and controlled environment, and we need to look at the situations and challenges on a child-by-child basis,” she says. “For some students with mental health challenges or who are vulnerable and are facing safeguarding challenges, just making it to school is a massive achievement.

“Having a culture where it’s OK to not be OK, and it’s OK to get it wrong and make mistakes…will go a long way to helping build a positive culture in a school, where the focus is about developing the whole child.”  

To read this article in full, pick up a copy of the 1 June issue of Tes from your local newsagent or subscribe to read online

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