Why are we so frightened of failure?

Why are we so frightened of failure?

We often think about failure in a negative light. Certainly it can be painful and cause upset, but it is a natural part of learning. I was working with a school recently where kindergarten students were asked to prepare a talk about their favourite toy. Students were marked on the various aspects of talking and listening that the teacher had taught them about. Sounds pretty usual? The interesting part was when the teacher talked about how upset the students were when they didn’t get a perfect score and how one parent showed up at the school in an attempt to renegotiate the mark!

This really highlights to me the issues surrounding education and learning in general. We promote student success as the be all and end all, a trend that has been growing since the introduction of the outcomes education movement, national testing etc …and what is wrong with that you might ask? Everyone enjoys success. It makes us feel accomplished and in our world society and media highlight, even worship success. However, they rarely highlight the journey to get there, and let’s not even think about what happens to the people we expect success from who don’t deliver.
This might not be a problem, except that this seems to imply that the path to success is a straight and linear one, while our experience tells us that the opposite is actually true. Struggle is a necessary part of learning and growth. We have all experienced failure in our personal lives and in our learning journey as well. The whole point is that often the most valuable lessons come from our failures rather than our successes.
Mathematics researcher Manu Kapur in his 2016 article in Educational Psychologist developed a theory about something he calls – productive struggle. This is the idea that attempting to perform a task and initially failing can improve learning. His theory is comprised of 2 parts – initially students are given a task that they probably can’t solve and are encouraged to guess or experiment to find a solution. During the second part they are taught the content that will help them to complete the task and then are given the opportunity to try again. Kapur’s research indicated that students scored better on conceptual knowledge when they were taught this way.
So how can we make failure a student’s friend? Here’s a few ideas to start with:

  1. Let’s change the idea that if you fail you lose and replace it with the idea that struggle is part of learning.
    2. Set up learning environments where failure is part of the learning journey.
    3. Model being a learner yourself, don’t be the font of all knowledge. The opportunity to find the answer together can demonstrate to learners that even we don’t know everything.
    4. Set high standards. Plan introductions to learning that the students won’t be able to answer and develop a sense of wonder that makes students interested to explore the content you are teaching.
    5. Don’t confuse performance with learning.
    6. Provide enough time and feedback for repeated attempts and revisions, so that your students can experience success before you attach a mark to it. Make the struggle matter.
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