Should we allow children to fail?

I saw this question flash across my screen briefly from Twitter yesterday, but lacked the time to follow the responses. I’ve been watching the growing #purpos/ed debate with acute interest, but unsure of what voice I had to add.

Until the question of failure appeared, that is. This is quite close to my heart at the moment. I have several trains of thought on the matter.

Firstly, we’re squeezing competition out of the classroom. Pupils lambast each other for mistakes and many teachers refuse to admit they’ve made any, which only reinforces the idea that getting it wrong is A Bad Thing. “Don’t fail or we’ll never let you forget it.”
I’m all for SEAL. However, we don’t learn by getting it right all the time, but by getting it wrong, thinking it through, and trying again. We learn from the mistakes of others, too, if they are gracious enough to let us. I never forgot how to write a chemical equation after watching my Chemistry teacher mess it up over and over again.

Secondly, we are not fostering tenacity. I often share Malcolm Gladwell’s example from Outliers, of Asian children, better at Maths because they spend longer thinking about the problem, with my classes – who seem to give up almost before reading the task. Time is brief, and rather than letting them work it our for themselves, the scaffolding I provide becomes more detailed. “Don’t try: I’ll do the difficult bit.”
If Gladwell is to be believed, we’re culturally programmed in Europe to believe that repeated effort does not account for success: therefore, we need to work even harder to prove this is not the case.

This attitude is then taken out into the workplace by the coddled masses who never saw a red cross inked across their page, but rather a, “Well done for holding the pen the right way round” in unthreatening green. For example, I read recently that model bookers don’t send their models out on castings unless they are sure they will get them, so worried are they that the rejection will be too much for the model to take. “Don’t do what you can’t comfortably win.” Do we really want a society that has that for a motto?

Finally, do we need to redefine what failure is? Many students think a D grade at GCSE is a failure, since the league tables seem to suggest that. It is not. A U grade at GCSE is a failure. A D grade might be a failure if you achieved reasonably high levels at KS3, but that second part of the message is being totally lost. If we propagate the myth that a D is a failing grade, how can we expect students to strive for it? Having taught them that failure is embarrassing, and they needn’t try if they might not succeed, what sort of backwards logic is it to pressure them to achieve a grade we consider to be a failure?

I had this discussion with my year 11 class last year. It was pointed out to me, as I loftily proclaimed that there’s nothing wrong with a D if a D is where you are, that colleges want Cs or better. I couldn’t argue with that and decided we’d better move on with the lesson.

Here is my ideal classroom:
1. If you fail, we are grateful for the learning experience you have given us. You are a hero.
2. Getting it right first time, every time, is dull and predictable. Who wants to win a fixed contest?
3. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.
4. Define your own success criteria, but make sure they are challenging enough.

I feel a “Famous Mistakes of History” homework coming on.

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