Are we setting ourselves up to fail?

Failure is a word synonymous with negativity (like the infamous red pen…) but is failure really all that bad? This blog comes to you thanks to another wonderful colleague who introduced me to the book ‘Black Box Thinking’ by Mathew Syed. This book looks at why mindset is so important for success, and why failure is not something we should fear, but rather something we should embrace. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself”. Although this book is not specific to education, there was so much here that resonated, as our girls are very much motivated by success, however, failure is seen as something to fear and often a barrier to learning. So to make this blog meaningful, I hope to pull out some practical strategies that we could use which have been inspired by this book.

“The history of science, like the history of all human ideas, is a history of error…. But science is one of the very few human activities- perhaps the only one- in which errors are systematically criticised and fairly often, in time, corrected. This is why we can say that, in science, we learn from our mistakes and why we can speak clearly and sensibly about making progress” (Karl Popper, 1965)


Failure vs Feedback

As teachers we know the significance of feedback, but what is the difference between failure and feedback? If a student submits a work that is 40/40 then is there any feedback to improve their work? Technically no…. Here is when we would challenge them further. But when they achieve 35/40, they certainly haven’t failed, but they will need feedback in order to improve, this is why it is important that all students ‘get it wrong’ at some point. This is also why so many teachers are now moving away from simply ‘grading’ work or grading it at all. What is meaningful is the feedback you give, highlighting errors, misconceptions and then giving the scaffolding that will allow our students to move forward. This has manifested in many ways (and acronyms) such as DIRT, ReAct, Next Steps etc. But what is important is that you challenge students to act on their error. Therefore, meaningful feedback must move beyond ‘What Went Well’ and ‘Even Better If’ to include a task which gets them to engage with their EBI. The impact of this is so important that it is effective to set time aside in a lesson for students to complete these tasks.

Take for example, the car company Toyota, a highly successful business that uses instant feedback (and failure) to constantly ensure standards of their product and to avoid producing products that aren’t up to standard. If anyone on the production line is having a problem, or observes an error, they pull a cord which halts production across the plant. Senior executives then rush over to see what has gone wrong and help. Well this got me thinking, sometimes it’s not until an end of unit exam or assessment that you notice that a student (or sometimes multiple students) have misunderstood a key concept. By this point they have in their mind made a ‘high stakes’ error whereas if we had this Toyota pull cord, the error could be addressed whilst still at a ‘low stakes’ level in the class. (Matthew Syed, pg 53). To embrace this idea, I have started using a similar concept with my exam classes. When introducing a new concept or text, I issue them ‘bells’. This way, when there is something they are unsure of or need clarifying again, the simply ring the bell. However, before simply giving them the answer, it is effective to ask them questions which will tease the answer out (often to their annoyance) and try to get the other students to suggest a solution.


Marginal gains and creative leaps

Throughout Black Box Thinking, there are lots of examples of businesses which have a successful mindset, therefore, there is a lot that we as educators can learn from their successes and in some cases their failures. The book talks about marginal gains and how businesses will roll out prototypes as early as possible to get market research (and essentially, instant feedback), from this they will change and adapt. Even businesses that are considered successful still carry out market research to ensure they are meeting the growing needs of their customers and then adapt from the feedback. These are marginal gains and these bring about progress. But only some progress.

However, they also need to take a ‘creative leap’ in order to be truly successful. This could just be an entrepreneur taking the leap to invest all their savings into a new idea. It needs to be based on research but there still needs to be that leap of faith. For example, Blockbuster was using the concept of marginal gains to grow the company, they tweaked their design, changed the lay out, introduced Blu-ray and so on. However, in 2000 they had the opportunity to buy Netflix but they didn’t, and as we all now know, in 2013 they went into liquidation as the business platform was obsolete. This is the exciting (and scary) part of innovation, we don’t know what way new technologies are going to take us. But we certainly need to take that creative leap if we want to stay ahead.

So how can we implement this in schools, well in terms of whole school, there is the creative leap around digital technology. The research out there to say it supports learning, although present, is limited. On a classroom level, we could pose our students ‘the impossible exam question’, this will put them out of their comfort zone and be far from what they were expecting. Again we must remember that it is OK for things to be hard and even uncomfortable, but this will bring progress.


Fostering creativity

Failure can also spark more creativity, for example, in a case study on ‘brainstorming’; there were three groups asked to come up with ideas. One was told to write anything down and no one was allowed to criticise their ideas, the second group was given no rules at all and the third was told to actively point out the flaws in each other’s work. The results showed that the third group not only came up with the most ideas but also came up with the most creative. (Jonah Lehrer, 2012). So now, when setting a ‘brainstorming’ or as I like to call it ‘mind dump’ task, ask the students to make sure they point out any flaws in each other’s thinking/ideas.

Another interesting study was one that looked at word association. Typical word association is not very creative, I say blue, you say sky… and so on. However, when participants were shown ‘blue’ and the word ‘green’ was said much more creative associations were made. (Jonah Lehrer, 2012) Now, word association doesn’t have much use in academics, but as a P4C starter or even just a ‘brain gym’ starter to any lesson, this could unlock much more creative ideas in the classroom.


Creating Mindset ‘Growth’

It is true that some brighter students often ‘shy’ away from challenging tasks, the fear of getting it wrong and not being seen as intelligent is too greater risk. This concept has been supported by the research of Carol Dweck (1975) who carried out research on 11/12 year olds. In an experiment, students were given eight simple tasks and four easy tasks. Those with a ‘Fixed Mindset’ blamed their intelligence or other factors they believed were beyond their control, whereas those with a ‘Growth Mindset’ saw the difficult tasks as a challenge and something to grow from. From this task, those with a ‘Fixed Mindset’ could be seen to adopt negative learning habits, whereas those who had a ‘Growth Mindset’ developed better habits and even improved their learning.

However, Angela Lee Duckworth (2007) who wanted to research into whether we can measure ‘grit’, carried out a questionnaire on Spelling Bee students. She found that those who scored highly, did so because rather than focus on what they do know, they focus on what they don’t know (they asked, what words can’t I spell?). This is the ‘mindset’ that we as teachers want to encourage, how we do this though, is a bit more difficult.

One suggestion is that in lessons we could remove the option of ‘challenge’ tasks and just have it as a task. If we want to provide all students the opportunity to succeed, then they all need the opportunities in front of them. This is also why differentiation has become something that I feel is rather unproductive, and encourages the wrong sort of mindset. If we start pigeonholing our students into just grades and levels, then how can they develop the mindset that they can achieve beyond this? Rather than differentiation, we should simply have ‘high expectations’, this doesn’t mean an authoritarian teaching approach, but rather the belief that all students can achieve, it just may take some longer than others.



Education should allow students to experiment and experience, to fail and to flourish. I know its cheesy, but James Dyson quite famously acknowledges that he made 5,127 prototypes before his final design, and he hasn’t stopped there…. Success takes long term application and no one is instantly ‘talented’. Education needs to embrace the importance of failure, we must try new things and take risks. Heather Hanbury, former Head of Wimbledon High School said: “If we wish to fulfil our potential as individuals and organisations, we must redefine failure.” (BBC News, 2012). Which is why Wimbledon High School held a day of ‘failure workshops’, perhaps Northwood could have a ‘failure week’ where we expect our girl to challenge themselves in a safe, low steaks environment so that the fear of failure becomes less. At Northwood we are lucky to be an all through school which means we can work to build an ethos of acceptance when we make mistakes. We cannot change the system of exams (yet) where failure is punished and success is rewarded. But we can reward effort and processes as we prepare our students for their exams.

Miss Hughes, Head of Cognitive Learning