The art of failure

Should we teach girls how to fail? Absolutely, argues Helen Jeys, deputy headmistress at Manchester High School for Girls

J K Rowling gave Harvard University students an inspiring speech in 2008 on ‘The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination’. She spoke of the importance of failure in her own life and how, before Harry Potter, she had failed on an “epic scale”. For Rowling there were, nevertheless, key benefits to failing.

She said: “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default. Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies.”

Looking back on my own education, I remember a hugely important conversation with my English teacher at the age of 17. An overly studious girl, my fear of failure resulted in anxiety before examinations. I remember him saying, rather simply, “Helen, what happens if you fail? Will the sun not rise in the morning?” I had never considered the possibility of failure before and, indeed, thought that my life would quite literally stop if I did not achieve the A level grade I needed to get to my chosen university. The lesson behind this rhetorical question has remained with me ever since.

Most girls today are, just as I was, risk-averse and demoralised by the prospect of failure, or what they perceive to be failure. If we accept Rowling’s point about the benefits of failure, can we teach girls to respond to failure in a positive way? Can we enable them to avoid feeling scared of what they perceive to be the potential humiliation which comes hand-in-hand with a poor result? How can we teach them to become risk-takers and to take that educational leap, even if that leap is followed by a fall?

We do need to find a way of encouraging girls to take risks in their learning and to engage in the process of learning and the setbacks that can come along the way, rather than continually focusing on that end result. Well used self-evaluation exercises encourage girls to reflect on what they have done and see their work as a positive building block on which to build. Research has also suggested that a non-graded approach to assessment can have a positive impact on a girl’s view of her own work. Not awarding grades forces her to interact with effective narrative feedback and not on a seemingly objective grade which might indicate failure.

Furthermore, encouraging girls to compete with themselves rather than others, with their own personal targets and their attainment in relation to their own ability, are all ways of helping girls to reflect on their own learning journey. If all of this is done in a supportive atmosphere in which perseverance is considered a fundamental value of the school, failure will not be seen in a negative light.

It is certainly essential for us to think about how we can enable our students to understand how to respond to failure. Whether it be through developing effective self-evaluation tasks or by encouraging extra-curricular involvement in sport, for instance, where not everyone can win, we encourage our students to self-reflect, to learn and to persevere – all character traits fundamental to their future success in life. This issue is more than about encouraging self-esteem, it is about helping students to develop those skills which will enable them to cope with the rough and tumble of adult life.

If we do not teach girls how to respond to failure, then we do them a disservice. We have a responsibility to teach them the realities of life, to make them aware of the positive impact of failure and how, if they do experience it, the sun will still rise in the morning.

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