The confidence to fail

The confidence to fail

Andrew Fleck, Headmaster of Sedbergh School, explains why only by challenging children to do truly difficult things can they ever achieve their very best.

Education is a complex web of opportunities and priorities yet one question stands out above everything else. “How does a school get the best from its pupils?” No matter what the school, we all claim to enable pupils to “fulfil their potential” or “realise their ambitions.” Yet how many schools can articulate how they do so in a coherent manner?

Try the question. Creating success is about more than offering opportunity and more than managing performance. Opportunity and talent may be good places to start but the question must be how do schools generate a success mind-set in a teenager who may lack direction or even ambition?

Teenagers are rapidly developing adults in every respect and whether it be academic, emotional or physical, they develop fastest when they are exposed to real challenge and a genuine risk of failure. Only by persuading them to step outside their comfort zone can we get the very best from them and enable them to achieve standards beyond their imagination. Yet whilst teenagers are risk-takers in certain respects, they are conservative unless they feel confident of a positive response from their peers around them.

Herein lies the greatest challenge for schools, to create an environment in which their pupils are willing, or even inspired, to take intellectual and educational risks. Only by challenging children to do truly difficult things can they ever achieve their very best.

It’s strange how fads come and go in education. In recent years we have seen resilience morph into mindfulness, now the current fad seems to be the need to fail. The subject is cropping up everywhere; Tony Little, erstwhile headmaster of Eton, was quoted as saying “gilded youths need to learn to fail” on 12th March. Most commentators argue that in order to become ready for the harsh realities of life, pupils should experience failure in the structured and supportive environment of their school. This is a recent iteration of the rather contrived “Failure Week” initiated by a high performing London school in 2012 when pupils were set tasks to fail and thereby learn about failure. It was not continued.

The importance of failure has nothing to do with building resilience and getting used to disappointment, but everything to do with creating success. Matthew Syed has written about the paradox of success being the need to fail in Black Box Thinking, but whilst businesses might embrace failure in a structured manner as a means to improve, teenagers are more driven by emotion than rational thought.

The key to getting teenagers to embrace the risk of embarrassing failure in front of their peers is managing the response of those around them. Quite simply, a pupil who is laughed at and called names for getting a question wrong in class, running slowly or singing out of key will avoid such a situation in the future. By contrast, the pupil whose peers celebrate his contribution to the team effort will go back for more, try even harder and learn to excel alongside his peers. Shared experience of that nature is life-changing.

How can schools achieve that? By celebrating the success of teams in every sphere of school life. Instead of celebrating an individual’s academic results, we celebrate the performance of the whole class; it is the team on the pitch which counts not the star athlete and the performance of the orchestra is more important than the soloist. Then we set the teams the biggest challenge we can find.

Schools which celebrate collective success in every sphere will get more from their pupils. Their pupils will take risks, confront failure and ultimately excel.

Sedbergh School is a co-educational boarding school. It comprises a junior school for children aged 4 to 13 and a senior school for children 13 to 18.
A: Sedbergh School, Sedbergh, Cumbria, LA10 5HG.
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