Freedom to ‘fail’

When you hear the word failure what images or situations come in to your mind? What emotions do you associate with failure? Take some time to jot down your thoughts.

I – Rachel – remember ‘failing’ my Grade 3 piano exam when I was ten years old, and can still recall been absolutely devastated. I received comments from the examiner about what I had done ‘wrong’ but I cannot remember my teacher really explaining to me what I needed to do ‘right’ and how to improve. I could have been put off for life, but instead I invested incredible amounts of time and energy practicing and practicing three brand new pieces, all in an attempt to avoid the awful feeling of devastation again – that was my strategy at the age of ten. You may be pleased to know that it payed off, because six months later – the second time around – I passed the exam. But was that the best strategy? It strengthened the character trait of persistence within me, but what did I actually learn through the experience?

30+ years on, and I still play the piano

‘Failure’ is often associated with not achieving or accomplishing an intended outcome. Sadly, I fear that my feelings of failing at ten years of age are not uncommon. All too often children can be made to feel like failures, through the comments that adults make, the marks they receive at school, not being rewarded / appreciated at prize-givings, or being compared to others, and so on. Children are being expected to do their growing up in what are generally extremely competitive environments, where risk taking isn’t rewarded but results are. Surely, we have to question the impact all of this has on our children; on their character, creativity, curiosity and identity, on who they were created to be. Lotto defines failure differently:


‘..when you don’t learn anything’

Lotto B, 2017. Deviate: The Science of Seeing Differently, p.289.

Viewing failure in this way turns things completely on their head; failure becomes not so much about not achieving, but about not learning anything through the process.Which makes me curious – as I consider what we mean by quality education – what and how should we be making judgements about whether someone or something is a failure or not? Let us start by taking some time to consider what we want the children that we are teaching in our schools to be like as adults. This is a question that we have asked over three hundred people this year; from educationalists, parents, social activists, church leaders, business people in the UK and South Africa, to leaders from within our own municipality here in Durban. Overwhelmingly, people have expressed a desire to see young people graduating from schools, who are (groupings as suggested by Ritchhart, 2015:17):

  • curious and ask questions; qualities that drive learning
  • able to solve problems, creative and prepared to take risks; traits which facilitate innovation
  • collaborators, inclusive, empathetic, listeners, caring; skills which enable children to get along with others
  • critical thinkers and resilient; behaviours which support in the ability to deal with complexity
  • ethical and generous
Before feeding back the skills that quality education around the world is nurturing, we asked people what they wanted to see in local children as adults.

Interestingly, not one person out of the 300 that we asked, ‘What do we want the children that we are teaching in our schools to be like as adults?’ made reference to subject areas or academics.Often our education systems require teachers to make every piece of work during a school year count to an end of year mark, with the assumption that this motivates children to work hard, and perhaps for some it does. But what does this communicate to students? What messages are we sending our children through our education practices? What skills are children developing through having everything marked? Does this way of working encourage children to be curious, have a go, take risks, to innovate, and to collaborate with others?

At a pre-school in Tel Aviv-Yafo, Israel, children are given the space to oscillate between what they do and don’t know, free to explore and develop tessalating skills together

Of course, any approach that encourages, ‘..trial and error and intellectual risk taking…the hallmarks of innovation (Wagner 2017:174) – approaches where children have the freedom to think critically and creatively, to solve problems and learn through a process without the restrictions and concerns that are often associated with getting the best mark they can – requires different ways of assessing.Teachers that I have worked alongside would give feedback on certain pieces of writing; three comments on what had been done well, and one comment on an area for improvement. This supported children to see learning as a continual process. Working in this way was also a form of self-assessment for the teacher, highlighting what the children had understood and identifying areas in need of reinforcement or for further exploration.

Children at a pre-school in Kwambonambi in KwaZulu Natal, experimenting with co-construction, evaluating and adapting their design accordingly

Reggio Children, in Making Learning Visible (2001), emphasise the importance of self-assessment for children. Teachers establish safe but challenging spaces; balanced situations, shared contexts where children self-assess amongst a small group of peers. With reference to three, four and five year olds, Vecchi (2001:205) explains:“..children are able to engage in self-reflection about their own processes with surprising clarity”

Whether we’re teachers, parents-carers, or concerned adults, if we desire our children to be life-long learners, then encouraging approaches to education that resemble those being described here, will support the understanding that learning is actually a continuous process of development. Developing a holistic approach to education, where children can develop foundational literacies (academics) alongside competencies such as critical thinking, creativity and collaboration, which values the character qualities of curiosity and resilience, will require different forms of assessment, structures which value the process of learning.

Failure should never be a ‘felt ‘concept in our or indeed any school, since children should be part of learning spaces where they are free to investigate, explore, create, innovate, and to self-assess with others; spaces where they are valued for their uniqueness, with teachers who understand how to support them to oscillate between the known and unknown.

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