Embracing Failure in Schools and Society

by Sean Mbusi 

With the proliferation of technological development, buzz words like artificial intelligence, 4IR, blockchain, big data and numerous others, are surfacing across all industries. Education is no exception and is incorporating tools like Edtech (Education Technology) to personalize learning and facilitate classroom management. The Department of Basic Education has also recently introduced coding and robotics as subjects, a progressive move to embrace 21st century learning. 

There is a growing trend, especially in the form of quotes on social media, to embrace a Growth mindset versus a Fixed mindset in education. For example, seeing failing as an impermanent result. and as an opportunity to learn. In South Africa’s education system, the concept of failure is amplified at a matric level, so the Department of Basic Education (DBE) is attempting to bring the Second Chance Programme into communities. However, more should be done in earlier school years to clearly communicate that second chances are readily available at all levels in the educational journey, and failure or set-backs do not need to impair future success.

Embracing Failure in Theory

According to the Oxford Dictionary, failure is the act of not meeting a set goal or objective, or not achieving a societal expectation, such as passing a test, going to university or getting married. Two popular TED Talk videos, Grit-the power of passion and perseverance by Angela Lee Duckworth and Developing a Growth Mindset by Carol Dweck, hold extremely valuable information that would be highly useful if instilled in children from early childhood. These talks make the distinction between a Growth and a Fixed mindset and emphasize that those with perseverance and grit can outperform those with only raw talent.

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However, failure is more than just failing a test or losing a rugby game. It is a daily occurrence that happens more and more frequently as life progresses outside of school. Failure has more to do with the societal perception of success and therefore how people react to a particular outcome. If reactions are abusive, dismissive or discouraging, this usually perpetuates a failure mentality.

Unfortunately, the consequences of failure are visible all around us. Children are exposed to labels of being “stupid” or “slow”. Being made-fun-of or excluded from groups is also common in social arenas and creates the illusion of failure. These attitudes are learnt and perpetuated from and by family members and peers in normal social circumstances, including at school and at home. The stigma around failure needs to be addressed both at home and in the education system. It is ineffective for teachers to cultivate a growth mindset in education (or at school), only for those skills to dissipate the moment learners enter into the post-school environment. It is very important that the Growth mindset is parent-led.

Learning does not occur solely in a school context. Learning or learning opportunities are everywhere in all daily activities and interactions. It is through these everyday interactions that we model how to react to “failure”. From one of her studies, Dweck highlights that some children felt better knowing that other children achieved worse test results than themselves and that many children run from difficulty. Parents and the community play a much bigger role in the education of a child than is acknowledged and taken responsibility for. Expectations and values should mirror each other both at home and at school. The importance of parental involvement cannot be stressed enough. This will ensure a child does not receive contradictory messages regarding their success and well-being.

Failure in Practise

A Teacher’s perspective

Peer Learning Networks (PLN’s) are a platform where teachers can share tips, ideas and best practise with each other online by using certain hashtags such as #ZAedu, #edchat on social media platforms like Twitter. These have become increasingly popular and a great resource for sharing information. But Twitter is not an isolated platform with only well-intentioned teachers who excel in their profession and serve learners in an exceptional manner. Teachers sharing quality information actually make up only a small number of the overall users on these platforms. Many posts simply encourage toxic interactions and vitriol. Teachers risk displaying their shortcomings in full view of the public and face abuse in the comments sections. Although the majority of people use social media in their personal capacity, many teachers are too afraid to post in a work context and be perceived as a failure. Another challenge to utilizing PLN’s and technology in an effective and helpful context for education is a lack of training. Some teachers are afraid of the smart devices that have been introduced into schools as they have not been trained in how to use them properly. This can result in a perception of failure by the teacher.

A Learner’s perspective

There is a saying that is prevalent in the black South African Community that says “Abantu bazothini?” this is translated as “What will people say?” Learners are under immense pressure to succeed in school as they are aware of the stigma associated with failure. Even through humorous jokes and posts on social media, any slight failure by role models and influencers are highlighted and ridiculed.

Within families, children who go on to earn white-collar degrees are treated differently to those with only a college certificate or matric. People who have dropped out of school early, people who work in basic admin positions or clerk jobs, or even people in the creative industries are sometimes seen as failures. It needs to be emphasized to children that there are various paths to success 

Parents and guardians need to work with schools in achieving these healthier perceptions. When children don’t carry out chores perfectly, don’t win a sporting event  or fail a test, the attitude (how we use our words) of parents should encourage that the children are not failures. This is not meant to give children a false sense of achievement, it is meant to instil a mindset that they tried their best but can always try again or improve by practising and seeking help or mentorship to identify their strengths and weakness. Asking for help needs to be normalized. Focusing on effort and its associated personal improvement as a success marker rather than only the end result is important. Cultivating self-awareness and realistic goals is also important. Those asking for help should not be treated as inferior and those doing the helping should not patronize those they help.

Our families and societies are littered with “failed” businesses, careers, relationships and dreams. Our teachers and parents are products of these families. It is up to schools and families together, to work to break this cycle. Carol Dweck mentions a school in Chicago that writes “NOT YET” as the grade achieved when learners don’t make the pass mark. This strategy promotes perseverance and limits the perception of failure. Our schools, parents and communities should do the same.

This article was originally published in Teacha! Magazine 2.2. To take a look at the latest edition, click here.

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