The courage to fail


Children deserve the same consideration we give adult learners

What is the right thing to say when a child’s answer is wrong? It’s not hard to deal with incomplete answers or tangents but what about the responses that reveal serious gaps in knowledge and understanding. At these times teachers tend to remind children to listen or to stop doing something, such as doodling, chatting or playing. What children often stop doing, though, is answering questions.

Learning in a group can be enjoyable but it can also be exposing; balancing these two dynamics isn’t easy.“Are we making the grade?” is a common issue for teachers and students alike. “Requires improvement” is the last thing educators want to hear but is this a message we want to percolate through to the students? Isn’t requiring improvement a pre-requisite for learning anything? It would appear that too many children are going through school thinking of it as a competition rather than an opportunity–the golden opportunity to make some mistakes with impunity, to experiment, to explore and, most importantly, to think, before all the responsibilities of adulthood crowd in. Of course, I want my students to experience success and achieve their goals but equally I want them to develop self-knowledge, realism and resilience; these things come from having the courage to try and, sometimes, to fail.

As adults we are highly specialised and yet we fail all the time –financially, in relationships, as parents and in our working lives. Life is a constant stream of exasperating personal and professional challenges from which no one is exempt. It seems to me that developing an understanding of how we handle unwanted news–knowing that we can handle it–is so much more useful to us than focusing on how we celebrate the good; it’s a much deeper seam to mine. As learners, our limitations, differences and struggles should be acknowledged, explored and embraced rather than avoided. But how?

Respecting difference

What if teachers were to afford children in school the same considerations offered to adults in the context of professional training. In CPD sessions, adults are often given reference materials (the answers) in presentations, they are rarely singled out for questioning, they tend not to be assessed in a public forum, and they would be rightly offended by personal comments about their organisation, bathroom habits, fidgeting or learning style. Put simply, when training adults we show respect for their fear of failure and we acknowledge their experience and their pre-existing knowledge, whatever that may be. This kind of respect children hope for and recognise but rarely expect and have little power to demand.

Almost all of the dyslexic adults I have ever met talk about their schooling like it was a war. The ones who thrived are often lauded as “self-made”, inspiring individuals. They protected or rebuilt their self-esteem by focusing on their strengths. However, there are others too badly scarred, often terrified of school (and their children’s teachers), who apologise for themselves and their lack of literacy. Their learning outcome was not only an enduring fear of education and the educated but a sense of shame.

If the new Act and the new SEN Code are to succeed in placing the needs, wishes and futures of children with SEN at the heart of schools, we need to address this reality by ensuring that due consideration is given and this fear of failure is dispelled once and for all. A great teacher recognises and respects what it feels like not to understand. If all teachers are going to be good teachers of children with SEN, they have to find the thin line that exists between a challenge and a risk. On that line we find motivation and the courage to try, whatever the outcome.

Further information

Abigail Gray runs Senworks Ltd, which provides advice, support and training to schools:

Abigail Gray
Author: Abigail Gray

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