Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho!

You must learn to fail intelligently. Failing is one of the greatest arts in the world. One fails forward towards success. 

Thomas Edison

Show me a teacher who doesn’t fail every day and I’ll show you a teacher with low expectations for his or her students.

Dylan Wiliam

I’ve written a fair bit over the past couple of years on the need to allow pupils (and teachers) to fail, learn from their mistakes and do better. This ability to learn from mistakes is, along with the ability to delay gratification, the master skill. Most things are possible if we’re prepared to work hard, and aren’t deterred by the pitfalls we’ll inevitably encounter along the way.

Then today had an insight. I’m almost embarrassed to call it an insight as I’m sure it’s fairly trite and must be something which has always been blindingly obvious to everyone else. It came to me whilst reading a sci-fi novel called The Martian by Andy Weir. The story is a modern retelling of Robinson Crusoe with the protagonist an astronaut left stranded on Mars after an unfortunate series of misadventures. Anyway, at one stage he’s trying to work out how to do something very technical and extremely dangerous and says of his first abortive attempt, “I guess you could call it a failure, but I prefer the term ‘learning experience’.” And something clicked.

What occurred to me was this: failure is just a lack of practice. The astronaut in the story eventually succeeds because he perseveres; I have a B grade in GCSE in Maths because I worked really, really hard to get it; some pupils succeed at school because they learn from their mistakes. All this reminds me of John Hattie’s exhortation on feedback: “A teacher’s job is not to make work easy. It is to make it difficult. If you are not challenged, you do not make mistakes. If you do not make mistakes, feedback is useless.” And while that is certainly true, there’s an even bigger consequence: if you don’t make mistakes, you’re not going to get better.

The unofficial motto of Eton College is ‘effortlessly superior’. Can there be any two words more pernicious words to conjoin? The message is that it’s only worth to succeeding as long as you don’t look like you’re trying. I think we have seen the effects of this in public life. Obviously, some pupils succeed at school despite coasting and never risking failure. Bully for them. But what, I wonder, do they learn from this experience? And what will they do when (and if) they encounter something which makes them struggle? Effortless success isn’t really success at all. . Just because you can do something easily doesn’t mean you should be proud of the fact. I love this line from Taylor Mali’s What Teachers Make: “I can make a C+ feel like a Congressional Medal of Honor and an A- feel like a slap in the face.” In fact, it’s worth watching the whole thing:

So, that’s it really. I think we need the experience of having had to struggle in order to know how to cope with failure. Failure can often be just a lack of practice. And with enough practice, all should be well. The only real failure anyone ever suffered was giving up.

Related posts

The art of failing
Why we should strive for perfection
Building Resilience: Sir, I’m stuck