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.

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