Needing some relaxation after an intense but rewarding day, I began to watch a film called “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’.* I didn’t know anything about it apart from the names of the actors in the impressive cast list. This is not going to be a review or even a summary of the plot. However, I am going to use some dialogue from the screenplay as a theme for this blog.
Near the end of the film, there is a voice-over, in which Judi Dench (…sorry, Dame Judi Dench OBE, CH etc. etc.) speaks the following lines…
“The only real failure is the failure to try…and the measure of success is how we cope with disappointment…as we always must.”
As an educator and a learner, this struck a chord with me. So much so, that I ‘rewound’ to hear that phrase twice more before I let the film continue.
Without risk, there would be no failure. Without failure, there would be no learning opportunity. Perhaps we can see the destination and are unsure of how to get there. Or, perhaps we are exploring without any idea of our destination, creeping forward or leaping into the unknown. Either way, it involves a degree of uncertainty and risk.
Fear of failure…or more specifically, the fear of the consequences of failure is a huge barrier to learning for learners of any age. If we do not have the ability to cope with failure, then success will constantly be elusive.
How we feel about the consequences of failure is an indicator of the culture to which we belong – family, school, community, society, tribe, nation etc. We may receive many mixed messages about risk and failure. For some it is a natural part of life, for others it is associated with shame, guilt, rejection and humiliation.
I wonder how many young learners witness the abuse heaped upon a losing side by sports ‘fans’, as if it is the worst thing that could possibly happen. They may be present when the mistakes of individuals are focussed upon and spoken about repeatedly, and their sporting hero’s best efforts are derided without mercy. They may be inducted into a tribal mentality, where the passionate hatred of other humans who wear different colour sportswear is their dogma and creed. I wonder how many learners exist in cultures where the worst thing you could be is slightly different to a perceived norm – ethnically, physically, sexually, or spiritually. You are labelled a ‘loser’ because of height, hair colour, disability, etc. Good luck to the educator who then encourages children to embrace errors as learning opportunities!! (Seriously…good luck…and don’t give up!)
For some learners, failing to try is not the worst thing you can do but a guarantee that the ‘worst’ will not happen – ‘If I don’t try, I can’t get it wrong’. For some it is better to endure anger than humiliation; better to remain in control and deal with certainty than the uncertainty of a less than perfect outcome.
Most of the time, ‘getting it wrong’ is not a matter of life or death. (Sometimes it is – such as the occasion I tried to fit a new light switch without turning off the mains electricity!). Failure to succeed in the education system can result in limited life choices and opportunities for many school leavers. However, we can be made to feel that any perceived failure is hugely important. In education, that feeling can be transferred through a whole system from national government to learner. (We are not ‘winning’ in the PISA league…! Panic! Fear! Anxiety! Blame! More Panic! Knee-jerk reaction! More blame!)
Of course, the failure to provide effective education has potentially devastating consequences for individuals and society. That is undeniable. And, to quote a friend of ours:
‘Public education is the imperfect solution to the perfect problem.’**
There has to be accountability and systems to monitor quality of provision. However, what if the monitoring system itself adversely affects quality because of the climate of threat and fear it creates? Whether that fear is justified or not, is the system able to detect its own influence and respond appropriately? Or, do we have to wait until a complete system failure?
The only real failure is a failure to try.
If any system of monitoring quality and school inspection is not at least trying to monitor its own impact – then it has already failed. Perhaps those with the power to change and improve these systems*** cannot cope with the disappointment of its failure (even if it is only partial failure) and therefore cannot admit it, perhaps for reasons of professional or political pride. When those who design and operate (enforce?) internal or external quality assurance systems are prepared to genuinely request, receive and act upon feedback concerning their effectiveness, we will indeed be making progress in education.
Raise standards. Embrace errors. Revive Learning. Encourage risk . Remove fear. Empower learners.
** Thanks to Zach Bullock for the quote.
***Systems should be used for their purpose, not a as social engineering tools for whichever government (local or national) holds the balance of political power.