Don't let fear of the F-word hold you back

23rd March 2012 at 00:00
Failure is not the end of the world. It can even lead to great things, says Heather Hanbury

How often do we as teachers call for an end to spoon-feeding? How many of us have tried to ban the classroom call: "Do we need it for the exam?" How many of us want to stretch beyond the confines of the exam syllabus? Structuring lessons to encourage risk-taking, as teachers and heads will know, is one strategy to do just that.

But what about moving the focus from risk-taking to where it can easily end up - in failure? It seems this particular F-word arouses everything from passion to cynicism. Little did my colleagues and I know what a media storm initiating Failure Week at Wimbledon High School earlier this term would create.

Naming a whole week a "failure" had a shock value that enabled us as a school to demystify the word, and that was the overriding aim. A TES editorial in November covered the obvious benefits of recognising failure and highlighting what children can learn from it. Without learning to fail, pupils become fearful of trying new things and easily get bored. Fear of failure is the enemy of independent learning and of entrepreneurialism in later life.

The coverage of the week in some of the press was necessarily broad-brush. We did not go "entirely off curriculum", this was not a carte blanche to fail exams, and nor did we set up activities especially for our pupils to fail.

Our theme in the preceding weeks was building resilience. Teachers were on the lookout for pupils who went a step further than normal, who asked questions that showed "courage in the classroom" and who picked themselves up when things did not go their way. This is part of the ethos of our school, as it is in many, so it was nothing new to the girls, but the emphasis was stronger and, crucially, staff had to show their active support.

We then addressed the subject of failure head-on: what does it mean to fail? We talked about putting things in perspective and pupils found that the emotions associated with failure are not always negative. "You can feel spurred on, determined, and that can make you feel good." "When you get something right that you failed at first, the feeling is amazing."

Assemblies cited famous failures and the failures of teachers over the years (this went down well, as you can imagine). And outside speakers brought their experience, including "failed" Everest mountaineer Nick Carter, whose tale of turning back just 30m from the summit of Everest was truly inspiring for the pupils. We tested the girls' attitude to failure, then retested later in the week to measure any change. I am glad to report the change was marked.

Parents reacted well - and often with feeling: "When I look back to my years at university and the career paths that my (predominantly female) friends have subsequently taken, it has often struck me that those who succeeded most were not necessarily the brightest, but those who had confidence in their abilities, were adaptable to change and not frightened to take risks. I wasn't that woman, but I hope my daughter will be."

So what of the complaint that the issue is the domain of privileged schools and pupils alone? Well, during Failure Week, I happened to be booked into a child protection training day, alongside peers and care professionals dealing with some of the borough's most disadvantaged and vulnerable children. They could not have been more supportive. What they would need to add, they said, was advice to pupils on how to succeed, how to live up to unexpected success when it comes. Crucially, resilience is at the core of that, too, as is a strong network of pastoral support to help such discussions take place.

Certainly, the overwhelming number of poignant emails that I have received testifies that the subject has struck a chord. We took our own risk in shouting loudly about failure and, on this occasion at least, it was a success.

Heather Hanbury is headmistress of Wimbledon High School.

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