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Fail to Succeed?


Over the last 18 months Mr Paul Taylor, Deputy Head (Academic) has written on and spoken to groups of parents about Growth Mindset theory. This relates to the theories of Professor Carole Dweck, who believes academic progress can be stalled or accelerated depending on an individual’s mindset.

Mr Taylor explains more below…

Some people believe intelligence is a fixed attribute that cannot be developed and this leads to an inability to tackle challenges, avoid constructive criticism and to give up easily. Others possess a Growth Mindset and accept there is no such thing as the finished product; rather intelligence can be developed through deliberate practice and sheer hard work.

At some parents’ information evenings, we have investigated how these theories can be acted on in practice. The type of language we use as parents with our children, for example, can affect their mindset; it is far better to praise - or criticise - their efforts than their attainment. How we approach mistakes and failures is also crucial.

This is the subject of Matthew Syed’s latest book, Black Box Thinking: The Surprising Truth About Success. I cannot recommend it to you more highly! Syed asserts that failure is not merely an inevitability in life but actually necessary for us to make progress.

He highlights the progress the aviation industry is always able to make after any incident, minor or devastating, hence the title of his book and the success of that particular industry in preventing accidents.

Perhaps my favourite story is his retelling of Unilever’s 1970s crisis. Their Liverpool plant was responsible for producing several well-known brands of washing powder. Unfortunately, a fault in the machine led to an unusable product and the need for re-design. The scientists managed it, of course, but less well known is it took 449 attempts before they found the correct nozzle design! Through a process of trial and error – and vitally by responding to feedback from the errors – they got there in the end.

I think we as teachers and parents can apply the same theories and help our children prepare better for both academic tests and life trials.

Firstly, let’s desensitise failure. Mistakes happen – let’s not catastrophise those made within the safe environment of school. Most mistakes made are of very little long-term consequence. Take mock results as an example. I can’t remember what I got in my mocks (I know they weren’t A grades!), and no one has ever asked me for those grades. I do know, though, that pupils learn valuable lessons from the mistakes made in those trial exams.

I read recently an article that discussed the prevalence of ‘fragile perfects’ in our schools (TES, 23 January 2016). According to Dr Angela Lee Duckworth, famous for her TEDTalk on resilience [KM1] , straight-A pupils can be the ones most lacking the grit needed in later life. According to Dr Duckworth, the difficulty lies in introducing "disappointment in a way that is natural". She says…

"We don't want to trip them up on purpose. But how do you introduce them to the discomfort that comes from being on the edge, the occasional failure and occasional setback, in ways that will build them resilience for the long term?"

Syed quotes a London school that introduced a ‘failure week’ during which pupils were educated to understand the positive nature of making errors. Not something we will introduce at Trent College yet but certainly worth backing in principle.

Secondly, can we change the way we measure success in life? For some pupils at Trent College, the envelopes opened on results’ days in August will not contain rows of A* and A grades but will still be the consequence of blood, sweat and tears over a period of years.

If giving everything we possibly can to a subject, task or activity becomes the key measure then our children are more likely to achieve long-term mental good health and satisfaction.

Matthew Syed himself experienced failure in a public and humiliating fashion so as soon as you have finished Black Box Thinking, I recommend you look up his story in Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice.

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