Learning & development

May 8 2018

How we learned to love failure

Bridget McPherson
By School psychologist

A week of celebration in a Melbourne school helped mistake-wary students understand the power of getting things wrong

“While playing soccer, I scored a goal for the opposition team!”

“When working at a vineyard, I accidentally cut off an entire vine, while the vineyard owner looked on in horror!”

“I was kicked out of ballet school!”

This was how Failure Week was launched at Ivanhoe Girls’ Grammar School in Melbourne. Without warning, during a weekly assembly, students bore witness to teachers declaring their personal failures. This sharing of stories started a week in which students were encouraged to follow their teachers’ lead by accepting, grappling with, and using their failures as a means to learn and build resilience.

High expectation can blight lives

As a school psychologist and the head of counselling at Ivanhoe Girls’ Grammar School in Melbourne, I provide psychological support to pupils experiencing difficulties and implement programs to promote mental health among our students. I develop these programs based on research, trends and issues that arise in my clinical practice as well as reports from teachers about difficulties that students commonly face.

An increase in perfectionism has become apparent in recent years. Our students feel pressure to perform at elite levels academically, and they set correspondingly high expectations for themselves. They worry about making mistakes and struggle to tolerate the uncomfortable emotions that come with failing or being imperfect. Such students can be reluctant to try new things, may avoid effort and may be overly apologetic in class and dependent on teachers for solutions.

This pressure leaches into the rest of their lives. Students now commonly report that successful performance is crucial in achieving happiness, and they feel worried about looking “stupid” in front of others. They often report believing that their relationships with others, including teachers and parents, will improve if they perform better at school.

The cost of perfectionism

Such trends are not limited to students at Ivanhoe Girls’ Grammar. Research has established links between perfectionism and poor outcomes such as lower self-esteem and psychological disorders. It is also associated with behaviours that interfere with learning, including obsessive behaviours, such as repetitive checking and correcting, overworking and reassurance seeking, or behaviours that are limiting, such as procrastination, resignation, and self-criticism.

These behaviours are often motivated by the belief that they will hide a person’s imperfections from others and therefore provide short-term relief from worry and stress. But over the longer term, these behaviours limit a student’s engagement in learning and often result in poorer academic outcomes.

The benefits of challenge

Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, wrote in her book Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential, that for parents “the best thing they can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning.”  Schools are well positioned to instil this ‘growth mindset’ in children and teens, as a fundamental part of their learning journey.

By promoting the importance of mistakes in learning and growing, schools can reduce the mental health impact of perfectionism on students. They can support young people to develop flexibility, self-sufficiency, self-regulation, critical thinking and creativity, all of which are developed through the process of embracing imperfection.  Young people constructively exposed to challenges will build grit and resilience, which will help to make them more adaptive and successful in the future.

How can schools embrace failure

How can schools, which have traditionally been focussed on achievement and academic success, instil a capacity to embrace failure in students, and promote a more constructive mindset?

We know perfectionism is developed through simple learning processes –  the importance of performing well is communicated, successful performance is role-modelled by others, and a student receives positive reinforcement occurs they perform well or punishment if they make mistakes. Schools can counter the negative aspects of these otherwise positive influences by:

  • Communicating to students the benefits of mistakes or failure, and how they contribute to learning.
  • Having staff regularly discuss their own mistakes and failures and how these experiences have contributed to understanding or development.
  • Rewarding effort, perseverance, and reflection, rather than academic outcomes. This could be teachers praising students’ efforts rather than output, or might involve more complex measures, such as adjusting assessment criteria to reward attempted learning or re-strategising when faced with failure.
  • Ensuring that teachers provide feedback, including constructive criticism, on effort and strategy, rather than outcomes, and communicating the importance of this to parents.

How Failure Week helped

Our Failure Week at Ivanhoe Girls’ Grammar School provided a perfect opportunity to introduce the idea that failure is a crucial part of learning, that ability can be developed with effort and persistence, and that growth, rather than achievement, is the most valuable learning goal. The week was based on a similar program at a school in the UK.

A highlight among the many planned activities was a virtual tour of the Museum of Failure in Sweden. Dr Samuel West, a psychologist and founder of the museum, provided students with a live tour of various failed products, including Colgate frozen meals and the “Bic for Her” pen. He spoke with students about the importance of failure in creative pursuits and innovation, and maintained that the most successful corporations frequently experience failure in their development of world-renowned products.

Failing more often

Failure Week was a resounding success. It communicated to students that Ivanhoe Girls’ values learning over achievement, and that optimal learning is best achieved when students can embrace mistakes and failure. It provided students with tools to take risks in order to grow and develop.

Feedback from teachers was positive, with teachers reporting valuable class discussions and reporting a desire to incorporate these ideas into their teaching in future. Students said that prior to Failure Week, they believed failure was “bad” and “scary”, and would “affect you in the future a lot”. After the week, they reported a shift in perception, reporting that “you can learn from your mistakes and get better”, that “good can come from failure”, and that failure is an “opportunity to learn”.

But this is just the beginning for Ivanhoe Girls’ Grammar.  We discovered fear and avoidance of failure was more pervasive than first expected, affecting students at all year levels and staff as well. With many adolescents reluctant to admit to shortcomings, we will continue to work to skill students to see failure in a positive way, as part of an ongoing process that improves learning.