From the Editor - Failure: a signpost, a stop sign or just a dead end?

25th November 2011 at 00:00

Some people are born, or raised, confident. Failure isn't an option because it doesn't exist. A colleague renowned for her self-belief confessed her immediate reaction to failing her driving test at the ripe old age of 17 was: "Are you sure?"

Most teenagers are less self-assured. Most children confronted with failure have to be led through it. Most adults faced with children who have failed veer unsteadily between sympathy and embarrassment. Failure resides somewhere in that large, socially awkward space between death and flatulence. What, exactly, should we do with it (see pages 28-32)?

This isn't solely an issue of handling youthful disappointments. It is also a philosophical question: what role should failure play in education? Conservatives are clear. Failure is necessary because not everyone can and should have prizes. Failure limits success to those who merit it. Its absence inflates the mediocre and devalues the deserving.

Unsurprisingly, winners tend to resemble conservatives. But they have a point. Success undefined by failure just isn't success. An A, B or C would not have any meaning without a D, E or F.

But failure, educationally, is a lot more important than that. It not only provides the backdrop against which achievement shines, it is also essential for learning. We know that because many successful people have bequeathed a load of condescending maxims to make losers feel better. Failure is: never fatal; a detour, not a dead end; a natural consequence of trying; a stepping stonesignpostpointer on the road to greatnessachievementprosperity and so on. The lesson for pupils is crystal: don't give up. Unless you experience failure, you won't know what success is.

Should they still lack inspiration, history is full of serial losers who turned disappointment grit-like into career pearls. Steve Jobs, Christopher Columbus, Joan of Arc, Noel Edmonds and that catastrophe-punctuated success, Winston Churchill. Look at Winnie, children. He may have initiated the odd military catastrophe, betrayed two political parties, bankrupted the economy and waged an immoral campaign against Indian independence, but did he give up? No. He persevered until he got what he wanted. And drank lots.

Unfortunately, we appear to have forgotten what history can teach us about failure. Growing numbers of pupils reaching university are so cocooned that they have never learnt how to deal with setbacks and are so emotionally fragile they are dubbed "teacups". One psychologist has even published a guide for indulgent parents - The Blessing of a Skinned Knee - which sounds like Confucius goes to Lourdes, but in fact bangs away at the same theme: a bit of hardship helps kids deal with life.

Research suggests that those instincts are correct and that four-fifths of pupils react to failure by trying harder. It is a spur to success. A small proportion, however, mainly from poor or marginalised backgrounds, do not. Instead of being motivated, they feel humiliated. Instead of hearing: "You could do better", they hear: "What did you expect?" For them, failure is an epitaph, not a signpost. So teachers need to tread carefully. It would be ironic if, in our enthusiasm to embrace the educational possibilities of failure, we failed to recognise the realities of despair.

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