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Planning to fail: Why we all need to struggle sometimes

· Education,Research,learning

I was meeting with other teachers and talking about what makes learners successful – as you do. It’s hard at times to identify the specific building blocks that help individuals respond well to learning, because there are so many: upbringing, socio-economic status, quality of input, personal circumstances and a whole host of other things. But one common factor that keeps coming up is the idea of grit and growth mindset.

What is grit?

Grit is being thrown around in the media a lot at the moment. Especially after the UK education secretary, Nicky Morgan, has announced that rugby coaches will be brought in to schools to teach / develop / train grit in pupils. The best digestible explanation I have seen so far is by Angela Lee Duckworth:

“Grit is the passionate commitment to a single mission and an unswerving dedication to achieve this mission.”

Angela Lee Duckworth does TED Education talk on grit, success and education
You can see the TED talk here for more around that. But basically it is about being able to display the determination and perseverance to stick with a goal despite the tough times. In addition, it’s about having the skills needed to cope with failures along the way and appreciate that failure is not final.

Failure is feedback

One of the best mottos I have ever had the pleasure of hearing is “Failure is feedback”. Not because it is especially profound but because it makes me personally think about the process of success and failure.

When we succeed we can often forget to seek feedback. If it ain’t broke we don’t fix it… which means we don’t know how to fix it… which means if it ever did break we would be clueless. Or, to paraphrase the oracle in The Matrix; we don’t notice the programs that are doing their jobs properly. They are seamless and invisible. It is only when they go wrong when we start to pay attention.

It is often the case with our own goals. When things go well we tick that thing off the list and quickly move on to the next challenge – often forgetting to ask ourselves those key questions: why did it go well? How could I make that happen again? Could I make it better?

However, when we experience failure we are presented with a choice; Try again or give up. Trying again forces us to ask those vital questions; to deconstruct the process and tweak what went before so that we can make a future successful attempt. In a lot of ways failure tells us more about the task than success does.

Planning to fail

This heading can seem a little mean, but if you have followed me so far then hopefully you have bought into the idea that failure is a great opportunity to learn. So, with that in mind we should be planning opportunities in the course of learning for students to meet challenges, struggles and failures. It is at this time when they really need to test themselves as well as learn a lot about their own coping strategies.

For example: You may have seen on our main site photographs of young people tangled up with string. We ask students to start off tangled, and then untangle; following a few simple game rules. Initially, this is a bit of fun but after 1-3 failed attempts the frustration and temptation to give up kick in. This is when it becomes a key learning opportunity.

Students experience challenge in order to learn about perseverance, resilience and grit
Learning from failure

The type of things you learn from failure can either be about personal response or about the activity itself. Discussing the activity / problem tends to be what happens in formal education in order to solve the problem and move on, but if you want to change the mindset and attitude of learners then developing personal awareness is key.

Problem based questions:

  • What have you learned so far about the problem?
  • What have you tested so far and what was the outcome?
  • What new strategies could you try?
  • Would any of your strategies work if the circumstances were slightly different?

Personal awareness questions:

  • How do you feel when you don’t succeed / don’t succeed straight away?
  • How long are you likely to persist with this problem? Why?
  • How does failure / challenge affect the way you behave?
  • What motivates you to persist with a challenge?

Planning to fail can often be a rich and rewarding experience because the level of dialogue that comes from these questions is eye opening at least and transformational at best. Although the failure situation in itself can be stressful and irritating, we often hear back from students how that ‘annoying string activity’ was one of the key moments that young people learned about themselves. By really observing what they do in a challenging situation they can start making conscious decisions about how to proceed in future and what they need to build upon.

Practice failure in different contexts

As I mentioned earlier, Nicky Morgan has been talking about the initiative to build grit and character in young people through Rugby coaching schemes.

This is a great way to develop sportsmanship, perseverance and the idea of self improvement in order to achieve more. However, if young people only experience failure in a sporting environment then it may limit their skills base and not have the same impact as a holistic approach. A failure in a competitive sports game does not feel the same as failing an exam or dealing with a failed relationship.

The idea of planning for challenges needs to be treated holistically; looking at a range of psychical, emotional, social, intellectual and even moral / spiritual contexts. This is what will give young people the broadest possible skill set to take into their everyday lives.

So, as a final few areas for you to think on:

  • What type of failures do you experience?
  • How do you learn from them?
  • Do you experience challenge in different contexts?
  • How can you fill your own and others' lives with more supportive challenges?
Image Credits:
John Liu, 2011, Light bulb
Ted Talks, 2013, Angela Lee Duckworth
Krissy Venosdale, 2012, Failure quote
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