Why it’s ok to FAIL sometimes …
By Alex More
Read time: 7 mins
Nigel’s blog last month on valuing ideas in the classroom prompted a thought that failure is actually ok, it’s ok to fail occasionally and ok to get things wrong. Even the great wise Yoda in the latest Star Wars movie in his advice to Luke Skywalker suggests that ‘failure is the best teacher’
As controversial as it may sound failure in the classroom could actually make our students more resilient, and even more employable when they leave school.
There was a time when Einstein couldn’t count to ten, a time when Shakespeare couldn’t write but human beings are born to learn and learn we do. Failing is a key part of that process and we as educators should embrace failure at all costs. There are actually very few times in a child’s school life when it’s not ok to fail. In the UK, this is generally viewed as Year 2 & 6 SATS, GCSE’s, mocks and A Levels.
If you add up time spent in the classroom compared to time spent in exams, it’s the classroom where students should be encouraged to get things wrong, as there are no huge consequences. Let’s view failing as another word for growing. That changes the emphasis.
The F Word
At Primary level, kids are mostly fearless when it comes to getting things wrong in the classroom. Here are some examples below to set the scene.
It’s hard to see from the picture but Fifi has been spelt Fife, Sophi and Fify in this shot. She was not the slightest bit bothered, just happy her friends gave her a card on her birthday.
Easiest home work ever he said! But sometimes kids just say it as it is. They are not fearful of conforming to norms or getting things wrong.
This one is great, quite a famous picture that did the rounds on education blogs recently but again spoke without fear of consequence.
In Sir Ken Robinson’s awesome ‘Do Schools kill creativity?’, he alludes to the fact that we have created a culture where failure is seen as a negative thing. Perhaps then we should view the word FAIL as First Attempt In Learning. Robinson tells an inspiring story of a young girl at the back of an Art class who is normally not engaged in learning. When the teacher asks what it is she is drawing she simply replies with I am drawing a picture of God. In that moment, she had forgotten or not taken the time to think that none of us knows what God looks like. Absorbed in the moment, she took a punt and went with instinct. Surely we should be embracing this type of risk-free thinking in the classroom.
Should we encourage young people to take risks?
If our students are losing the desire to try out ideas due to the fear of getting things wrong, how can we change that?
Well, one idea is that we should look at ways to embrace risk within the context of our lessons. The timing here is key. I am not advocating that it’s ok to risk not revising for a test, or fail a mock exam. At a grassroots, day-to-day level I am suggesting we create a platform for young people to get things wrong, and be comfortable doing so.
As a child progresses from the Primary phase of their schooling (4-10 yrs) into adolescence they display a tendancy towards sensation seeking. In an interesting experiment, researchers Margo Gardner & Laurence Steinberg asked people from three different age groups (14, 19 & 24 yrs) to participate in a driving simulator game. When participants were taking the test/game on their own they were observed to take far fewer risks than when the researchers allowed their peers to sit in the back of the simulator. In fact, a 50% increase in risk-taking behaviour was noted with younger adolescents taking twice as many risks (speeding, running a red light, over-taking) in the presence of their peers. Does this then translate to the classroom setting? Are 14-year-olds happy to take risks in the presence of their peers? Yes, research would suggest this is the case. But why?
Could this be the reason?
The dramatic growth of educational neuroscience in the last decade has produced remarkable findings regarding brain development during childhood and adolescence (Giedd, Blumenthal, Jeffries, Castellanos, Liu, Zijdenbos, et al., 1999; Sowell, Thompson, Tessner, & Toga, 2001). The most impressive findings concern the protracted maturation of the (PFC) and parietal regions. It appears that around age 11, the PFC and parietal lobes begin a period of prolonged pruning of neuronal axons resulting in thinning of cortical grey matter. At the same time, there appears to be an increase in neuronal myelination. The significance of these maturational changes has yet to be established. However, many researchers have argued that the protracted pruning of the PFC represents growing frontal control over behaviour, the absence of which is associated with impulsivity and poor decision-making (Romer, 2010).
How can we manage risk and encourage SAFE failure in the classroom?
Whilst not conclusive, here are a few ideas that might help us encourage risk, perhaps even reward it and create an open, non-hostile environment for our students.
Build in It’s OK to be wrong a section within lessons
Plan to have an ‘any idea works’ forum to explore ideas and possibilities. This concept is similar to some Nigel presented in his recent blog post. Build in 5 mins where the teacher asks questions, challenges content. For Flipped Learning fans, this could be during the Flipped 101 stage. Great for new learning where knowledge is not quite there yet. Piaget (1954) proposed that children construct their own meaning through experiences. If teachers can create a platform to explore ideas openly without fear of failing or being laughed at, then this will surely help scaffold healthy learning habits going forward.
This could actually be beneficial for their growth mindset
Teach students how to get over being stuck … a little resilliance
I have tried a STUCK MENU which is basically a series of steps students go through before they approach the teacher for help. It’s not for every child but works well in large class situations where teacher face-to-face time is paramount. It really helps identify which students need the most support and encourages social peer interaction. Try it!
Bet on and Back your answers
At a recent TeachMeet, a colleague Josh who teaches MFL gave an inspiring talk on taking risks in the classroom. He uses gambling as a way to engage students in taking risks.
An interesting approach but it has proved very popular, particularly amongst boys. Could it be that this appeals to the pre-frontal cortex as alluded to earlier?
Fake money is used and the dangers of gambling and addiction are discussed. Students are engaged and it works for him! The students in his class speak very highly of this method and seem to enjoy the risk vs reward methodology.
Anyway, some ideas to challenge the perception that it’s not ok to fail. If done correctly, failure could be viewed as a crucial part of a child’s learning.