I am one of those increasingly rare people who sincerely believes that you cannot learn from failure. A number of times on this blog and on Twitter, I have asked people for examples of how they have learned from failure; I have yet to have a convincing response.
The best response has perhaps come from @Dughall who tells me that he no longer soils his nappy! Dughall is a great guy but I doubt that he only soiled his nappy the once and then straightaway learned to use the toilet, besides, does anyone really believe that a baby is a failure because it soils its nappy?
Learning from failure is very difficult because life very rarely comes down to a choice of two options, if it did then every time you failed you’d know that the other option was the correct one. As I say, though, life is not that simple, you may recognise that you have made a mistake and that is good but all that may have done is shown you that your choice was not the correct one; it has not shown you the right one.
At this point, let me come to the title of this article. The terms or phrases, fail, failure and making mistakes seem to be used interchangeably and this is probably a mistake (sic). I do not think that to fail and to be a failure are the same thing.
To be a failure is a state of mind and in my experience, both personally and as a teacher, it is one of the most detrimental obstacles in learning. If you feel you are a failure, you are less inclined to learn anything new for you believe you will not succeed and you may be more inclined to dismiss what you have already learned and achieved in the belief (mistaken belief) that this may have contributed to your failure.
To fail, means that you have not passed, you have not succeeded, you have not met someone else’s criterion and you are not as good as other people, indeed you are below the norm! To fail in one thing does not mean you are a failure but to be constantly or repeatedly told you have failed could lead you to believe you are a failure. To fail still leaves you the opportunity to try again, if you have the frame of mind and the determination of character to do so. Yet, what is the point of trying again unless you can see how or why you failed?
It is not failing that helps you to learn, it is the ability to reflect upon and analyse a failing that enables you to try again to succeed.
We are constantly told that is it okay to make mistakes or that to err is human, and this is true. It is not a failing to make a mistake, if, again, you are able to recognise that mistake and have the opportunity to correct it or try again.
Then there is another factor, something that is called the ‘fear of failure’. Rather than failing itself it is a fear or as belief in the inevitability of your failing which prevents you from trying or from learning anything new. In my work as a special education teacher, I have seen many pupils who have been affected by a fear of failure, such pupils need careful planning, encouragement and support to overcome their fear; without this, they perseverate, stick with what they already know and do anything to put off attempting anything new. The effect of this upon their learning can be very marked indeed.
We have another saying which goes, nothing breeds success like success. I believe this to be also true. If we are told we are successful, we are more likely and more willing to go on to achieve more success. It does not matter if other people may be better or more successful, if we believe we are successful ourselves then we can go on to live, to learn and be more successful.
I am perfectly willing to accept that over recent decades we may have swung from one extreme to an other in education; that the current trend to encourage failing and mistakes in learning may be seen as a reaction to a previous trend to encouraging success perhaps to the point of over-protection or molly-coddling. However, I feel that it is risky to move back to a state where failing or the feeling of failure was commonplace among people.