Planning for Failure

Planning for Failure

Thursday, 30 August 2018  | Narelle - MECS Principal

For as long as I can remember, the following words have been stuck to my parents’ fridge:

At 20, I knew, and I knew that I knew.
At 30, I wasn’t so sure.
At 40, I knew there were a lot of things that I didn’t know before.
At 50, I sigh and wonder how one who knew so much so young, can know so little now.

As I have just turned fifty, this certainly rings true. Yet, we live in a culture that promotes and assumes that we only get better, and more clever, and more successful as the years go on. That seems the natural trajectory of life and if we don’t achieve this then somehow we must have failed.

Reflecting on this has made me question how much I have welcomed, learnt from and even embraced failure. The truth is that I have generally tried to avoid it.

Yet there is much in educational and organisational literature that talks about the importance of failure, particularly to learning.

In his book, Black Box Thinking, Matthew Syed argues that some organisations and fields of endeavour are better than others at learning from their mistakes. Syed names health care as an area that, historically, has been slow to learn from mistakes. Too often, he argues, healthcare mistakes are stigmatised, doctors are expected to be infallible, and systems are set up to ignore and deny errors rather than to investigate and learn from them. Data is not always collected and analysed in ways that allow learning; poor practices and mistakes go undetected.

On the other hand, Syed argues, the aviation industry has developed an admirable willingness and tenacity to investigate the reasons for failure. It has created systems and cultures that enable the entire industry to learn from individual mistakes. The title of Syed’s book is a reference to the ‘black box’ flight recorder that is vital in finding out what went wrong in aviation accidents.

A willingness to acknowledge and learn from failure is essential for all progress. Obstacles to acknowledging mistakes include the desire to protect personal reputations and deeply held beliefs. However, when evidence is avoided, hidden or ignored, learning opportunities are lost. This is true at the level of individuals and is equally true at the level of organisations, industries and professions. Learning from failure is facilitated by a culture that accepts mistakes and welcomes the learning opportunities they provide.

There are implications, too, for our attitudes to failure in the classroom. If mistakes are essential to learning, to what extent do we design teaching to produce mistakes? Or, do we instead stigmatise failure by sending students the message that we do not expect mistakes and that successful learning means not making errors? One way to minimise mistakes is to assign tasks within students’ comfort zones. If tasks are relatively easy, failure is unlikely. But so too is learning. Successful learning is most likely when students are given challenges beyond their comfort zones – challenges that stretch and extend them to the point of making mistakes from which they can learn.

A first requirement then is a willingness to see mistakes not as something to be avoided, but as something to be embraced. This has implications for teachers, students and parents. Much teaching is focussed on creating conditions for student success. However, effective teaching often means providing opportunities for students to make mistakes and to learn. Students need to be assisted to welcome new challenges and to view mistakes not as reflections on their ability, but as vital steps in the learning process.

A second requirement is professional skill in analysing the reasons for student mistakes. Student errors are often superficial indicators of underlying misunderstandings or inadequately developed skills. There is no point creating the conditions for failure if there is no intention to investigate causes and provide feedback to guide learning. Skills of investigation and diagnosis are crucial to effective teaching and essential prerequisites for learning from mistakes.

So, as a school, let’s plan for failure! But will you join us in allowing your children to fail? Will you help your child become a better learner, by accepting mistakes as part of the deal? Will you trust us to use their failure as part of the process of effective teaching? Let’s embrace failure, rather than avoid it!


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