Harry Potter and the ‘F’ word

J.K. Rowling famously saw Harry Potter rejected by twelve publishing houses before Bloomsbury commissioned her work.   She subsequently told a Harvard audience: “You might never fail on the scale I did but it is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case you fail by default”.

Failure – the ‘F’ word – has been stigmatised.  In education failure is seen as something negative, an action that undermines pupil self confidence, and therefore to be avoided where possible.  It has become virtually impossible to fail public exams and in 2011 the ‘A’ level pass rate reached a record breaking 97.8%.

Schools are now all about success, and whilst this brings many advantages – praise and a sense of achievement encourage pupils to try harder and achieve more, there are downsides.   In schools where success is everywhere, pupils who do not achieve highly can feel marginalised as an underperforming minority.  Exceptional success rates can be evidence of a dumbed down education where pupils achieve because standards have been diluted.  Such sham success does nobody any favours; many pupils see through it whilst others are let down because of it when they realise their qualifications do not have currency.

Failure so long a ‘bogey’ word in schools needs to be rehabilitated and destigmatised.  Pupils need to realise that failure is a common feature of life, that failure is evidence of pushing boundaries and taking intellectual risks, and that failure ultimately breeds success.  Moreover the desire to avoid failure stifles creativity and innovation and restricts progress.  Failure itself is not a problem; failure only becomes a negative force if children are not taught how to deal with it.  Failures that involve humiliation and rebuke are pernicious, but failures that are followed up with constructive advice and support are beneficial.

Children benefit from being educated in a challenging environment where failure occurs, and where pupils are taught how to deal with failures and what to learn from them.  This challenge is implicit within the Perse curriculum where pupils are routinely given demanding tasks at the upper boundaries of what they can realistically achieve.  Some students rise to these challenges, and such demanding hurdles are an essential means of guarding against complacency and helping bright children realise their talents.  Other children will come unstuck, but in a supportive classroom environment they quickly realise that ‘having a go’ and progress by ‘trial and error’ are encouraged by teachers.  Students are praised for trying and being willing to fail; the only unacceptable option is not to try at all.  Tim Hartford in his book ‘Adapt – why success always starts with failure’ argues that the art of success is to fail productively.  This approach needs to be fostered in British schools and through ‘productive’ and ‘intelligent’ failures, students will become more self-aware, more thoughtful and more resilient.  They can also become nicer – an occasional slice of humble pie can be the antidote to arrogance in an otherwise high achieving student.

Not only does ‘intelligent’ and ‘productive’ failure help the learning process, it creates an essential life skill.  Everyone fails at something in life, and high flying students with ambitious university and career plans are more likely to experience failure than most because of their demanding aspirations.  (Nationally 75% of applications to Oxford and Cambridge end in failure).  Exposure to controlled failure in school allows students to develop the resilience skills they will need to cope with the ups and downs of life.  By failing at school students can develop a sense of perspective that will help them deal with disappointments in the adult world.

The right kind of failure, where failure is backed up by supportive pastoral care and encouragement, is central to the learning process.  Learning by trial and error is a well established and successful mechanism.  The errors are not negative experiences, they propel students closer to success.  As Thomas Edison said in his journey to invent the lightbulb which included 1000 false starts:  “I, have not failed.  I’ve just found 1000 ways that won’t work.”  Each Edison ‘failure’ was a step closer to success as he narrowed down options and refined his thinking.

Productive failure from which pupils learn lessons and move forward should be a central pillar of education.  Failure must be seen as part of the learning curve.  We must avoid creating a future generation who get demoralised by ‘failure’ and give up when they are on the verge of success.  The world would be a poorer place without Harry Potter.

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