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Why Learning To Fail Sets Children Up For Success Later In Life

  • 4 min read

The question of examinations and gaining or losing marks looms large at this time of year, as school students get down to the business of making the most of their academics in 2022. But what if the way we traditionally look at the role of school and learning is outdated and unnecessarily anxiety-inducing?

“The common understanding that most people have about school is that it is a place where students go to learn facts and move from one grade to the next by passing examinations where they regurgitate those facts,” says Colin Northmore, Principal at Evolve Online School, a brand of ADvTECH, Africa’s largest private education provider.

“However, that is an obsolete approach, given the fact that anyone can find a fact at the click of an online button. So, the role of education has evolved, and that schools must bring more to the education table than transferring facts from the teacher at the front of the class to the minds of students.”

Northmore says the role of school and learning in today’s age, is about teaching children where the boundaries are – that is, the sum of what we think they need to know or be able to do, about any subject, and then expecting them to adventure beyond that.

“This idea does not mean that what they learn in traditional education is not essential. This idea is more about how we teach children and what we expect them to do with what they have learned. Critically, this idea is about how we measure a child’s success.”

Many schools generally do not treat failure as worth celebrating, Northmore notes.

“Instead, many if not most schools interpret so-called failure as a lack of effort (sometimes correctly) or a lack of ability on the part of the child. It is a reason for punishment, and children are taught to avoid failure at all costs. This approach has often been linked in research to cheating in exams and even teenage self-harm and suicide.”

In her article on toxic achievement culture, educational researcher Dr Beth Cooper Benjamin says: “If we want students to be successful in their schoolwork and tackle thorny real-world problems, then tolerating and learning from imperfection is a muscle we must help them build.”

Children are better served if we teach them that failure is just the first step in a learning process. Next should come reflection, says Northmore.

“We should not be giving children the correct answers, but rather teach them to ask better questions like: What did I not understand; what could I have spent more time practising; who can I ask for help with this; what could I do differently next time; and when do I have an opportunity to try again?

“Therefore, an assessment system that shows students where the gaps in their knowledge or skills are, coupled with information about how often they try again after not achieving mastery; how much time they devote to improving; and if the children are addressing their gaps, provides them with the tools that they can positively and productively use when encountering problems and challenges in later life.”

The biggest challenge is always the gap between theory and action, says Northmore.

“So for instance, schools must consider how much opportunity is provided for ‘failing forward’ and adventure on the path towards discovery? Schools using a mastery-based approach are ideally positioned for this new age of learning, based not on memorising facts and passing rote tests and exams, but confidence-building and mastery.”

With this approach, children get multiple opportunities to complete tasks and tests. And the space between their completion of a task and when they get feedback on their degree of mastery is kept as short as possible, by way of a live reporting system based on the learning goals. Children and their parents should have a live view of their areas of strength and places for development. And they should also be able to easily keep track of the pace their child is achieving in completing their work.

“So as the year kicks into high gear, let us help our children to explore, investigate and learn the power of ‘I have not mastered this yet’, while giving them the space to fail with confidence and without rebuke, as we light the flame of lifelong learning in their hearts.”