Failure is not an option (but it should be)

1st June 2018 at 00:00
Most of us recognise that to succeed we should expect to make mistakes along the way, but some argue that the education system is set up so that students are afraid to fail – and their learning is suffering as a result. Chris Parr reports

Xiaodong Lin-Siegler is baffled. And she is frustrated. Because she knows you know what she knows about failure. But she also knows that this knowledge is not being acted upon nearly as often as it should be in schools.

“To anyone who has ever taught, mentored or managed others, the study of failure and its role in learning, growth and success is an enterprise so intuitively right that it is almost baffling that it hasn’t been taken up more deeply,” she says. “But 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 failure.”

Some argue that it is partly the fault of social media – a world in which self-censorship runs amok, where we hide our real lives and only present the showreel. That we have cropped and edited failure from existence.

The case has also been made that it is a systemic issue in education. If you have hyperaccountability, if you push for perfection, then you incentivise an avoidance of failure – and the covering up of anything that looks like failure. And that permeates through leadership teams, into classrooms and into the mentality of students and teachers.

Is this an accurate picture of education today? Have we created a failure-averse school system? If so, does it curtail real learning? And what can we do about it?

Unrealistically high society

The picture-perfect nature of the online world has been cited countless times as a destabilising influence on society, contributing to mental health challenges and numerous other issues. And for our young people, the problems are particularly acute: 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.

Failure is simply not seen as an option for many young people today. And the writer Matthew Syed, whose new book, You Are Awesome, looks at how to build resilience and confidence in young people, says that has a knock-on impact on how they learn.

“Researchers have called it the ‘curse of perfection’, where kids think that life is about looking and acting perfect but, of course, to learn and grow we often have to take risks and try new things, which inevitably means failing the first time around,” he says.

Lin-Siegler shares that view and it was announced earlier this year that she will head up a new research centre at Columbia University in the US that will try to coordinate more research on how failure impacts motivation and learning – an area where the research is not extensive (an issue with motivation in general). It’s an opportunity for her to continue the work she has done in this area already.

In 2016, her research 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 (Lin-Siegler et al, 2016).

It concluded that the use of so-called “struggle stories” was a “promising and implementable instructional approach” that could potentially improve student motivation and academic performance in all subjects.

“One of the biggest dangers of children seeing successful people as infallible is that they will develop a strong belief that only geniuses can succeed, and that geniuses do not need to work very hard, and never face difficulties,” Lin-Siegler says.

“So when students struggle in schools, they perceive this as a sign that they are not cut out for certain subjects.

“If children believe that, regardless how much they try, they won’t succeed, then they will never give it a try, especially after failure occurs. They will quit so quickly that they will never discover their true talents, and there is nothing sadder in life than the wasted talents of many millions of children.”

The focus here is similar to that of the “character education” movement so favoured by former education secretary Nicky Morgan, and also the work of academic Angela Duckworth around “grit” – essentially, the need to educate young people to persevere when things are hard. There are also elements of Carol Dweck’s growth mindset theory that could be woven in.


But Lin-Siegler’s main point here is not necessarily that students need to change their self-perception or that they need to be taught to have more grit (which some believe cannot be done anyway), but rather that failure has to be normalised so that it does not deter children from continuing with a task.

Schools in the West, Lin-Siegler argues, deny students the experience of failure. She points to 2017 research published in the Psychological Review, which compared high school textbooks in China and the US (Braithwaite et al 2017). It found that, in comparison to Chinese maths textbooks, the US textbooks overwhelmingly presented easier problems. This, Lin-Siegler believes, is so “more students can succeed”.

“When more students succeed and get higher grades, teachers are happy, principals are happy, schools are happy and parents are also very happy,” she continues.

“However, the victims are our children, because they simply do not learn the depth and breadth of maths that they should have learned if we have presented them with more challenging problems.

“Nor have they learned how to deal with less successful grades. Basically, everyone is happy even though kids are not learning. We are fooling ourselves.”

Prepare to fail

Syed also sees serious issues in how young people are being nurtured and educated. While researching his new book, he came to the conclusion that, though failure is essential, we are not doing enough to help children experience it.

“In order to grow better, to become more successful, failure is a necessary part of the journey,” he says. “This is really well understood in some corporate arenas – you may have heard of the ‘fail fast’ approach in Silicon Valley, where companies get software out quickly in order to find out the inevitable bugs and deficiencies. It is a scientific method – you subject theories to failure and it is when they fail that they can be adapted to be made more robust.

“However, I don’t think schools have quite enough latitude to experiment and innovate, which I think is probably a bad thing. But some teachers are great at it, and know it is important that children are given the space to learn by doing, and to occasionally fail, but not see that as devastating.”

Many heads have written in these pages about the way high-stakes accountability can stifle risk-taking in how they lead. They argue that the stakes are too high, they can’t let children fail, or a school show failure.

“About 10 or 15 years ago, there was a sense that the health of each year group as a whole was important, and that pupils would do well in their exams because they were happier,” says Alex Yates, headteacher of the Royal Free Hospital Children’s School in London. “Now, the only key indicator for a school is outcomes. Ofsted has dribs and drabs coming back in about welfare but, really, now you are judged on your outcomes and that’s a huge amount of pressure for schools.”

And in January, education researcher Nick Rose argued in Tes that the schools system avoids talking about failures and does not learn from those examples but rather promotes success stories alone – an Ofsted/Department for Education version of the showreel nature of social media. When the macro picture is of that nature, the micro picture in individual classroom interactions is in danger of failure avoidance, too.

Changing this situation is difficult. At a system level, the Education Endowment Foundation has made a point of publishing information about what does not work as well as what does. Its chief executive, Sir Kevan Collins, wrote a response to Rose’s piece saying that “identifying what has worked in the past is useful only if we are as curious about what hasn’t”.

But in accountability terms, the consistent narrative of warning against “missed opportunities” and penalising schools that fail, with little in the way of constructive help offered, discourages risk taking because failure might ultimately cost you your job.

While the likes of Tes columnist Mike Fairclough, headteacher at West Rise Junior school in Eastbourne, argue that school leaders need to be braver, that can be incredibly difficult to achieve.

At a classroom level, those accountability pressures can seep into how teachers teach, and with the increased demands of the new curriculum – in complexity and content coverage – some teachers argue that they simply do not have the time to let children fail, recover and try again.

Risky business

“I don’t have enough time to cover the content as it is,” says one experienced maths teacher in the South of England, who wishes to remain anonymous. “If I were to spend a lesson letting students grope around for answers and fail, then analyse those failures, they would get to their GCSE and be able to complete only half the paper.”

However, as Syed says, many teachers do find ways of facilitating students’ failure despite the constraints. Lin-Siegler’s “struggle stories” may be one method, but there are numerous others.

Mark Roberts, an assistant principal in a secondary school in the South West of England, wrote in Tes about the “need to encourage pupils to take risks in lessons” and he offered some strategies that included: removing choice when differentiating work, so pupils cannot opt for the easier option; focusing on the process, not the product – pupils will need to get it right eventually but they will be more likely to take risks in the initial stages if they feel that the process is the first priority; and using wrong answers or near-misses to difficult questions or tasks as learning opportunities.

He also spoke of the importance of teachers modelling failure – admitting their mistakes, errors and where they found things difficult.

But is the teaching of failure – or the construction of experiences in which pupils fail – something we need to be wary of?

While some pupils may thrive when subjected to the pressure-cooker rules of Silicon Valley, others will need far more support. Tara Porter is a clinical psychologist employed at the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services at the Royal Free London NHS Trust. She specialises in offering therapy to children and young people with depression, anxiety, self-harming behaviour and eating disorders.

“The issue of failure is a complicated one – many people have spoken about how important failure has been to them and their ultimate success,” Porter says. “But that doesn’t mean that failure is necessarily universally a good thing.”

It depends, she says, on “the type of failure, and the interaction with the child’s personality and their other life experience”.

“Some children are challenged to succeed by failure, perhaps if they have a naturally optimistic personality, or are surrounded by encouraging adults, or have other experiences of their efforts leading to good results.

“But other children, perhaps not so inspired by their life experiences or significant adults, put their heads in the sand and become disengaged and disenfranchised.”


There is one type of failure in particular that Porter describes as “particularly toxic” to modern children – “that is, the insidiousness of a fast-moving, visual, consumeristic society, combined with a relentless exam and testing culture”, she says.

“It seems to provoke a sense of failure: a constant trying and failing to reach impossibly high standards in body image, appearance, friendships, extra-curricular activities and academic performance.”

This pressure can have devastating results, Porter says. “I work a lot with patients with eating disorders, and many of them hold extremely perfectionistic standards that are dangerous to their mental health – and teachers can unwittingly reinforce those through expecting A*s constantly from them.

“I have had patients who have studied through their showering, with revision notes plastered on the family bathroom walls, and left their books by their bed to set their alarms at 5am to start studying immediately they wake up.”

So, how do you get the balance right between teaching and encouraging failure, and protecting student wellbeing? Some clues can be garnered from the approach of those teaching the most vulnerable young people.

For example, Yates’ school – which teaches children with complex mental health issues – still takes a proactive approach to teaching students the importance of failing and how to deal with it.

Leaps of faith

“We deal with a lot of students with emotionally based school refusal, and 80 to 90 per cent of our young people have spent at least six months to a year out of school by the time they come to us,” Yates explains. “This means we have to run a model that thrives on challenge and says it is OK to get things wrong, you just have to give them a go. That way, the students build resilience.”

When day students start at the hospital school, they sign a pupil agreement, which touches on the importance of being able to fail. “It essentially says that we will offer them small classes and plenty of support, but that they have to be willing to try new things, to give things a go. Implicit in that is a sense of them being prepared to fail. They will have gaps in their education but we tell them it is OK, because we will provide the support they need.”

That support will need be individual to the student – not every child will need the same scaffold, he says.

Clare Erasmus is head of the technology faculty and head of mental wellbeing at Brighton Hill Community School in Hampshire. She agrees that the proper support structures are crucial if failure is to be embraced. In 2015, she became one of the first teachers in the UK to be appointed as head of mental health and wellbeing at a secondary school, and she gives regular conference presentations on the subject of youth mental health and wellbeing. She also helped to organise the country’s first Youth Mental Health and Wellbeing Teachmeets.

“Teaching our students to fail or setting them up to fail has to be 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.” (See box, below, for her tips.)

The aim is that the work of Lin-Siegler and the new research unit at Columbia will help to find research-backed evidence for the best approaches to failure in schools. But what she and Syed hope is that while the message, and how it is communicated to pupils, may need to be tailored to individual students, being able to learn from failure will be seen as a “universally beneficial” characteristic – not just in schools, but in the education system as a whole.

“Great teaching is about equipping people with concepts and ideas that can help them to understand the world around them,” says Syed. “But it is also about giving them softer skills, and resilience, I think, is one of the most important because messing up and getting things wrong is a big part of life, and a big part of learning.”

Chris Parr is a freelance writer

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