The power of failure

It’s that time of the term when assessments are being sent home and received with mixed emotions. Some students can’t wait and attack assignments with gusto and some are less than excited but make plans to complete the work. There are a growing number of students who find assessments acutely stressful and their fear of failure can be paralysing. If you have one of these young people in your family, I hope this article will be of help to you.

Donna Orem in her article “The Power of Failure” in Independent School, Summer 2018 writes: “Mistakes and failures are keys to learning. They make our brain begin compiling information about the experience and grow bigger. While the brain returns to close to its original size after the learning experience, it retains new neural pathways by taking in new information, compiling the key takeaways from trial and error. Making mistakes matures the brain, resulting in more efficient synapses and fundamentally altered neurons. In short, failure can actually make you smarter. But not all mistakes are the same.”

Three kinds of failure

Our children can easily perceive that failure is bad but it can be a source for good, especially as explained in the three kinds of failure:

1.    Preventable failure can be a sign that your child may not be spending enough time on the subject, hasn’t applied themselves or needs extra help understanding the topic. Preventable failure can seem negative however, it shows where the need is and is usually easily rectified.

2.    Unavoidable failure is where the complexity or uncertainty of the task makes mistakes quite likely. The trick is to learn from small mistakes to avoid bigger ones. This is the learning process in a nutshell. If all the assessments were easy then students wouldn’t be learning, they would simply be doing revision.

3.    Intelligent failures are at the frontier of learning, where mistakes are essential to gaining new knowledge and moving forward. “Intelligent failure” is a phrase coined by Duke University’s Sim Sitkin to describe the process of managing, mitigating and learning from failures. Mr Sitkin believes that embracing intelligent failure is one aspect of setting the psychological environment for innovation and creativity.

Failing doesn’t have to be a bad experience for your child. It can actually be the key to success, providing invaluable learning and growth opportunities.

Discuss failures with your children. Ask them what they think contributed to the ‘failure’, what they think the gaps are in their understanding and, most importantly, what they learned from their failure.

We want all our students to do well in assessments and achieve their personal best, however, it is even more important that they learn and grow as individuals; embracing failure when it happens and continuing a lifelong love of learning.

Mike Curtis, Principal

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