The art of failing

Why on earth would we ever want to fail? Failing’s bad, right?

Obviously getting something wrong, performing poorly and making mistakes is uncomfortable. But these things are a part of life. An important part. Apart from all the stuff about failure being character forming there’s the more important consideration that if we only ever experience success then maybe we aren’t trying very hard?

So why are we so seduced by the tawdry allure of success? TV screens are crowded by attractive idiots who are held up as contemporary models of success but really don’t seem to have tried very hard at anything to arrive at their dubious destinations. What then is success?

The dictionary defines it as “the favorable or prosperous termination of attempts or endeavours” which sounds pretty reasonable except the word termination. Overlooking all its negative connotations for a moment, let’s just consider it as a summation; an end result. When all is said and done we are left with success. Or failure. It’s a zero-sum game which some win and others lose. Our attempts and endeavours either end favourably or they don’t. And of course the obvious termination of our endeavours is death, conjuring images of St Peter interrogating us on whether our life has been successful.

I don’t know about you, but this doesn’t describe my own trajectory very accurately. For one, I did badly at school. I failed most of my GCSEs and could easily have been written off as a failure. I then continued to fail in spectacular fashion for some years before blundering into university and managing somehow to end up with a 2:1. Not exactly success, but not certainly not failure.

When I started my career as teacher I was rubbish. Really. Those early years are nought but a source of shame. I failed often and hugely. If I’d qualified today I’d probably have been drummed out of the profession in short order. But, for some strange quixotic reason I persevered and got a little less appalling. The turning point was joining a school which promptly went in to Special Measures (a coincidence I assure you.) Again, another massive and conspicuous failure. I wouldn’t advocate this as a way to develop as a teacher but my goodness I learned a huge amount and it ignited the love of teaching and learning which has since been fanned into a roaring inferno. Who says there’s no up side to failing?

Each year I’ve reflected all the stuff I’ve failed at and all the stuff I consequently learned. And every year I’ve slapped my balding bonce and said, if I’d known that last year I’d have done my students a much better service. And steadily I’ve become a fairly decent teacher. Not perfect but, certainly by some lights, a success.

So, how did that happen?

Regular readers will be well aware of my fondness for the following line from Beckett’s bizarre (and sadly neglected) prose poem Worstward Ho! – Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

What resonates for me is the idea of small, incremental steps and of effort. The effort I’ve put into not being a crap teacher has, bit by bit, paid off. I am now proud of the job I do. I still worry about making mistakes but am content that when I make them, I’ll learn from them and use what I’ve learned to be better next time and I’m constantly getting better. I love this line from Dylan Wiliam: ask teachers if they can improve. If they say yes, work with them. If they say no, fire them.

The real failure is a failure to try. For some people it feels a lot safer to not try and fail than slog your guts out and feel that you’ve gotten nowhere. It’s much easier to do substandard work than risk the humiliation of your best not being good enough. Safe and easy are the enemy and I am making it my mission to root them out where ever they lurk and expose them to purifying light of risk and hard work.

Interestingly, there is some evidence which suggests that less confident people are more successful. The main thrust of this argument is that if you’re not over-confident you’ll be more receptive to negative feedback, you’ll put more effort into preparation and you’re less likely to be deluded about your ability. This sort of approach requires, nay demands, a healthy and intimate acquaintance with failure. If you’ve experience a few horrible gaffs you’re much less likely to be a cocksure and annoying squirt.

So, can we design a curriculum that encourages students to risk failure? Can we promote a culture where working hard and creating excellent work is the norm? And can we get students to believe that they are capable of doing better than they ever believed possible?

Here are three simple (but hard) strategies I’ve been using in my classroom:

1. Give students tasks at which they cannot succeed. You could make the time limits too tight or make the success criteria so impossibly exacting that there is no way they could meet them. Maybe you won’t give them all the required resources or maybe the task is so open-ended and vague that there simply isn’t a solution. Naturally enough, students will find this frustrating. They’ll want to give up. The point is that you need to unpick with them why it’s important to fail. Some students never fail at school; they find everything effortless. Others never seem to do anything else. The point is that working hard despite the chance of failing is difficult. We tend to focus on the product rather than the process. By removing the possibility of there being a successful product we can force students to focus on the process of learning. They will start to see that understanding and valuing the process will lead to the creation of better products and they will begin to see that it doesn’t matter if at first you don’t succeed: you can always fail better in the future.
2. Don’t accept shoddy work. This is difficult at first but has dramatic results. If students hand in work which is not of the highest quality, I make them do it again. I’m particularly unyielding about proofreading. The failure to do one’s best is the only failure I balk at. They moan, complain and stamp their tiny feet but it’s vital to remain resolute in the face of their attempts to refuse to do this. Initially this will require you to give up some of your time but it will pay off. I’ve rarely had to make a student redo their work more than twice. The carrot in this equation is that they quickly start to take pride in their work. Even if it’s ‘wrong’. This is all part of valuing the process over the product.

3. Ron Berger talks in his wonderful book An Ethic of Excellence about the idea of Public Critique. One of the reasons students produce slapdash work is that no one sees it. If we create a culture where students regularly, and publicly inspect each other’s work. Find somewhere to display the work students have done; give them dedicated lesson time to assess it and then get them to suggest how it could be improved. Berger suggests that feedback should be kind, specific and helpful. If one of these components is missing then the chances of it being received and acted on are severely reduced. The key is to be soft on people but hard on content. Once feedback has been received then students need to do the work again. And again. Until it’s as good as they can possibly make it. Along the way they will have ‘failed’ and their efforts to improve will provide visible evidence of failing better. The end product will be a gift – something in which they can take pride – something they want to show off. I get my students to blog their work so that it reaches an audience beyond the school and their immediate community. This makes them more aware of their audience and results in them being less prepared to tolerate second best.

And remember, if you’re going to encourage your students to risk failure and work hard you will have to do the same. I’ve put enormous effort into some really spectacular failures. No matter: as long as I continue to strive to fail better. And some of my better failures have been beautiful.

You only really fail if you give up. Until then, it’s learning.

Related posts

Why we should strive for perfection

How to fix your attitude

Great article on ‘productive failure’ from Anne Murphy Paul, Why Floundering is Good

16 Responses to The art of failing

  1. NaomiWhite1 says:

    This is a really interesting post in light of what we are currently experiencing in school.
    We have an issue with some of our girls, who do not think putting in effort is cool. Instead, they play the ‘bimbo’ laughing at boys’ jokes and letting them treat them like plastic dolls.
    As a consequence, we have students massively falling behind. Failing seems to be cool; putting effort in is not. We think this is the ‘TOWIE’ effect – women who seem to have everything for not much effort and certainly not connected to education. The values some of our girls hold are purely about their looks and how attractive they are to the opposite sex.
    We are stuck as to what to do with these girls. Any advice? When failing seems cool, how do we promote the benefits of effort?

    • learningspy says:

      Hi Naomi

      Yes I’ve got a couple of general ideas:

      1. Explicit teaching of growth mindsets to all staff & students

      2. Introduce Project Based Learning (Reading Ron Berger’s book is a good place to start)

      3. Try single sex classes – might reduce the ‘laughing at boys’ thing

      4. Changing a culture takes time and there are no quick fix magic bullets but start now and have massively high expectations and don’t accept shoddy work or behaviour.

      Does any of this help? Email me if you want to discuss at great length.

  2. NaomiWhite1 says:

    Thanks for this David – much appreciated.
    I’m certainly putting no.4 back on the map. I’ve realised that I’ve let slip a little on not accepting shoddy work – definitely something to prioritise as I move into the new academic year, so thanks for flagging recently.
    Not sure I can do no.3 – I don’t have the power for this… but something I can suggest to HoD.
    I’m really interested in Project Based Learning so will look at Berger’s book – thank you.
    I’m definitely keen on teaching about mindsets and have already dropped this into our Teaching and Learning community discussions. However, as Head of Drama, this is certainly something I can build into our department training sessions. Even from a personal point of view, this has a huge impact on me.

    Thanks for this and appreciate the offer of discussing it further. Will bear it in mind as my quest to make changes begins…

    PS. Have reviewed your book on Amazon’s website. Haven’t let the 5 star ratings down!

  3. Phil Bell says:

    David, thanks this is really thought provoking. It’s particularly helpful to get the reassurance about not accepting shoddy proof reading – a particular challenge with our A Level English students who will take the rejection badly at first.

    Can you recommend any ideas for, or websites on critiquing English work in a whole class forum which fits the 3 rules but still has immediacy, which can be a challenge with our subject given that it’s often quite text heavy (I’m thinking about presentations following enquiry based learning tasks at the moment)?


    • learningspy says:

      Hi Phil

      Critique should always be immediate so there aren’t any specific websites on this. In terms of A level English coursework I’d recommend the class get used to critiquing each other’s work and redrafting as a matter of course.

      I’m teaching A level for the first time in quite a while next year and I’ll let you know how I get on.

      Thanks, David

  4. Joanne says:

    I am a high school geometry teacher and I often wonder how my first students learned enough to be successful on the end-of-course exam! I found your comments about failure intriguing. So much emphasis is put on grades the goal of learning is lost! I believe it is important to help students track their growth rather than grades. Some students have become so desensitized to failing they do not even try.

    Yesterday as I was working on plans for the upcoming school year I decided to add an in class discussion about failure. I am amazed every year at the number of students that crumple a quiz or test when it is returned, which then leads to a discussion about opportunities for learning. But I also have to reassure them one or two bad test grades is not the end of the world as long as they continue to work at learning I will evaluate their growth throughout the course. I explain in geometry they may not have understood how to solve a problem on the current assessment but because this course builds on prior skills they will have an opportunity to demonstrate proficiency on problems in subsequent assessments.

    I am a technology enthusiast and love the opportunities available for discovery as a result of dynamic geometry software. As a risk taker with integrating technology there are two payoffs; when something works to support student learning it is great, when something does not work it is an epic fail that cannot be hidden from students! However, students express appreciation for teachers willing to take risks!

    Thank you for affirming my plan to take time to discuss failure with my students!


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