The necessity of failure

Dominic Floyd | The Prep at Mount Kelly | Spring 2017
To succeed at something first requires a determination to overcome failure. Unless schools embrace this fact, says Dominic Floyd from the Prep at Mount Kelly, children are not prepared for real life.
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There are many terrific stories of celebrated people who have done extraordinary things over time. The recent Rio Olympics gave Heads plenty of anecdotes for inspirational assemblies. But what single thing do all these people have in common? The answer? Failure! Failure is a scary word. It is whispered; it is not said or mentioned; it is an old fashioned word from an age long gone. But momentum is gathering and the prep school world is beginning to recognise the importance of re-addressing the modern ‘cotton wool’ society we have all been guilty of creating.

When you ask or listen to someone who has reached the pinnacle in their chosen path, their greatest impetus has often been their failure or mistakes. Think of Lutalo Muhammad, the GB Taekwondo athlete who lost his gold medal in the very last second of the final. There is no doubt, through his agonising pain and post-match interview, he will galvanise himself to fight again and win the dream he has sought. Think of Katherine Grainger, who toiled through four Olympic Games in order to achieve that elusive rowing gold medal. Athletes often feel the despair of defeat but use it to rise again, train harder and ensure next time they learn from bitter experience. They are a lesson to our children on the importance of failing.

Nobody who has truly ‘made it to the top’ in any aspect of life would honestly say their journey has been easy or straightforward. Despite all the wealth in the world, anyone who stretches and challenges themselves has to experience the troughs of despair and failure if they are to achieve the highs of success and achievement. This raises some crucial questions in our education system. What do we want our children in prep schools to experience? We want them to be exposed to numerous opportunities; we want them to learn from a diverse and inspiring curriculum; and we want them to become fulfilled and happy from being educated in a stimulating, safe environment and one full of outstanding teachers that go the extra mile. This utopia will all dissolve rapidly however if our children are not prepared for real life.

The ability to laugh at oneself, be a team player, be a self-motivated learner, stand up in front of a crowd and feel comfortable in your own skin must be vital for prolonged success. An adventurous spirit, plenty of character and a dose of (daring to be a bit different) quirkiness must surely be encouraged. Sadly, we live in a ‘perfection’ society. Parents are guilty of trying to flatten the path to avoid any bumps for their treasures, whilst educators are perhaps guilty of lavishing too much praise and too many certificates and medals. Of course we want to build a foundation of confidence and self-assurance, but we must be careful these stones are built on a bedrock of achievement rather than getting a simple maths question right or just putting pen to paper. Real challenge and real achievement will form long lasting confidence.

Recently, I have been fortunate enough to be exposed to some competent squash players. I have perhaps played over thirty matches but only won perhaps thrice! There can be no question however that from my failings as a maturing squash player, my game has become much better. I have set myself realistic goals and, more often than not, I have exceeded them. My learning curve has been steep... whilst my opponents' has been flatter.

I am worried as a teacher. Too many children that cross my path these days lack the resilience we would like to see and know they will need. They might have an armful of A*s but when push comes to shove, do they have the backbone to survive the inevitable knocks that life will deal them. Children can sit in a classroom terrified of getting a question wrong. The safe option is the easy option: why use the word ‘sophisticated’ when one could use the word ‘simple’? We need to create a classroom culture where every child feels at liberty to experiment, to take risks and to get things wrong without ridicule, chastisement or fear.

So what is the solution? Telling children they are intelligent and fantastic all the time is not helping anyone. We need to be careful to sustain a growth mind-set culture from a young age. An appreciation of our weaknesses and our strengths but a realisation that we can aways improve, whatever the age. Appreciate the journey, enjoy the view from the top of the mountain but don’t forget you will need to come down the other side to climb up the next peak.

In the film Batman Begins, Arthur asks Batman, ‘Why do we fall sir? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.’ Imagine babies giving up trying to walk. Imagine a young child being frustrated with their artwork. It doesn’t happen... society has yet to poison their creativity or innocence. Compare this free and uninhibited environment to our Year 5, 6 and 7 children. The prognosis is not great. We see a raft of children constrained in their fear of making mistakes, failing exams or exposing their weaknesses. It is our duty as teachers to instil a sense of self-belief. Knowing one has the support and enthusiasm from the teacher will enable children to branch out, take some risks, make mistakes and yet stretch their ability and thought-processes. Schools need to encourage this exploration; they need to see teachers being more honest of their own failings and successes. They need to see us learning too.

The classroom cannot facilitate this alone and we need to bring the real world our parents live in to school. We need to contextualise children’s learning and make it current and real. Bring it into the classroom or even better, get the children outside into the real world. Visit some local businesses or entice your local entrepreneurs into school to share their stories. Alternatively, get your children outside, sleeping under the stars, hiking from A to B, building a den, identifying trees and insects and budgeting for a £10 al fresco meal.

In the future, creativity and freedom of expression will be more crucial than ever. The Arts need to be grown not dismantled. We need creative spirits capable of working round a subject. Schools need to stand up in confidence – with the support of parents – and start offering something truly exciting for our young children that lights-up their lives and gets them wagging their tails. Start teaching them content that is real and relevant. Make it visual and hands on... embrace the technology and get their hands dirty. Mould Harry Potter, the Shires, Star Wars, Swallows and Amazons, the Famous Five and St. Trinian’s into one giant cauldron. Take some risks... make some mistakes... fail once... fail again... pick yourself up and try again. But keep believing in you, your own education and the education of our children.

Dominic Floyd is the Head of Prep at Mount Kelly

This article first appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of Attain.

About The Author

Dominic Floyd

Dominic Floyd is the Head of Prep at Mount Kelly, a coeducational boarding and day school for pupils aged 3 to 18 years. The school is situated in a beautiful location in Tavistock, Devon, on the edge of the Dartmoor National Park.

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