Failure seems to be the zeitgeist at the moment. At several conferences I’ve attended recently at least one of the presenters has displayed the Samuel Beckett quotation:
Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.
At the Pelecon 12 conference there was even a “Confessional”, in which delegates could go in and record themselves talking about one of their mistakes. Here are a few of my thoughts on failure, especially as it pertains to ICT.
Fear of failure
As a general observation, fear of failure seems to be pretty widespread. I think it was Jacqui Smith, a Home Secretary in Tony Blair’s government, who said, having come from a humble background, that every time she attends a Cabinet meeting a part of her fears that this is the day that she will be “found out”. Sir John Betjeman, a hugely successful man, once said on a chat show that he dreads reading reviews about his work in case they are scathing, and that when people write nice things about his work he doesn’t believe them. Orson Welles, another person who was very successful by any criteria, said on a chat show that he remembers every “bad” notice about his work, and doesn’t believe the “good” ones. I wonder if these people are fairly typical? And how do we, as educators, address the issue?
To an extent, fear of failure can be a great motivator. For example, I tend to do more in my work than I think is necessary, in case what I do is found wanting. I find myself feeling envy towards those people who seem to feel that everything they do is, by definition, brilliant. I know other people who are the same.
On the other hand, having spent thirty years not allowing kids to fail in case it damages them psychologically, we seem to have spawned a generation who are at best ill-equipped to handle failures in life, and at worst are so arrogant as to be self-delusional (as evidenced by some of the acts on talent shows: I don’t mean to be unkind, and I know experts have been known to be wrong, but when so many unimpressive acts tell the panel that “you’ll be sorry when I’m famous”, you have to wonder). It seems to me that we need to make sure that young people know that really, the biggest failure is not even trying in the first place.
What can we learn?
All too often we celebrate success at conferences, but forget that we can also learn a lot from what went wrong.
Exactly, and in schools we can and should address this through using Assessment for Learning approaches in teaching, preferably without any gimmickry (see my article, Rules of Engagement), because good Assessment for Learning entails self-reflection and peer evaluation, amongst other things. All of which means that it’s OK to “fail” because the constructive assessment process will enable improvement to take place.
ICT is ideal for encouraging failure
Not because ICT in itself encourages failure, but because technology enables you fail in a safe way, through:
- draft documents, including the reviewing feature of most word processors (eg see 13 Things You Didn’t Know About Word: Reviewing)
- outlining in word processor and presentation programs (eg see 4 Ways to Write Quickly and 13 Things You Didn’t Know About Word: Outlining)
- what-if scenarios in spreadsheets
Basically, it’s OK to not produce something perfect the first time. Or even the second or third time. Or even….
In the ‘real world’, failure is not an option
I think this is important. When someone in my team informed me that because of a mistake he’d made in a spreadsheet formula, the £20,000 surplus I thought I had was actually a £20,000 deficit, I did not say, “Well done! Let’s hope that next time you do the same thing but with an extra nought on the end! Beckett lives!” Neither, do I imagine, did any of the people affected far worse by programming errors on flights or in cars, say. It’s too easy to say it’s fine to fail. We need to make sure kids know when it is not OK to fail as well.