Epic Fail

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John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
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How good are you at making mistakes?

No one likes making mistakes because no one likes to fail. Failure can be embarrassing, dent your pride and leave you with ‘egg on your face’. Sometimes size doesn’t matter either, because even the smallest mistake can feel gargantuan.

… But, no one plans to fail, it just happens and normally occurs after trying, taking a risk or doing something new. Sometimes we get it right and lots of times we don’t. Mistakes happen all the time and they can be very prickly.

Learning is one massive work in progress full of mistake making and as teachers we spend much of our time sweeping them up. We tell children that “we learn by our mistakes” which is sometimes true but serial mistake making is commonplace and par for the course before the penny really drops.

Many teachers exploit the mistakes made in class so they become the focus of learning and that’s good practice. But what about the mistakes we make as teachers? Do we put the same positive spin on our knowledge and understanding errors, our mishandling of situations and our spectacular slip-ups? Teachers aren’t supposed to make mistakes in the eyes of their pupils but what about the adults we work with? Are failures and faux pas learning opportunities or capability red flags?

Feeling Safe

Amy Edmondson is the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard University and she says that in order to learn and be productive, we need to feel ‘psychologically safe’. If we work in a place where mistakes are frowned upon and there is no room for making them then we don’t learn, we fail.

In her book Teaming: How Organisations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy she says,

In psychologically safe environments, people believe that if they make a mistake, others will not penalise them or think less of them for it. They also believe that others will not resent or humiliate them when they ask for help or information. This belief comes about when people both trust and respect each other, and it produces a sense of confidence that the group won’t embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up.

Can embracing failure help us to innovate and experiment? Take a look at the following simple diagram that illustrates the importance of psychological safety and how it interacts with accountability:

Image result for psychological safety and accountability

Image: Amy Edmondson, Teaming How Organizations Learn, Innovate and Complete (2012)

Professor Jo Boaler at Stanford University describes how children’s effort increases in ‘mistakes-friendly’ environments and they actually help brains to grow.

If we make the school environment psychologically safe for pupils to make mistakes and fail then do we do the same for staff? If we work in a safe place with a tolerance of failure then we are more willing to offer our ideas, ask questions and share concerns. We might even be willing to fail.

Fabulous Flops

Celebrating mistakes and showcasing our failures isn’t something we are good at but every year in Finland they celebrate a ‘Day For Failure’, an initiative created at the Aalto University in Finland. Their philosophy is a breath of fresh air because it recognises personal and professional failures but without the guilt and shame.

Failure is not the enemy, but the fear of failure is. Day for Failure is a new holiday for anyone to rethink, share and learn from failure.

Mistakes are inevitable, and if you aren’t making mistakes every week, then you aren’t learning much or trying anything new. The way we talk about failure and not getting things right has to change so that all learners can feel safe. Failure is a learning experience and we all have to flop in order to be a hit.

Failures force us to accept our fallibility and they teach us about ourselves, but making mistakes helps us inspire each other. Failing doesn’t make us incompetent and it isn’t bad. We have the idea that failure is the opposite of success when it is actually part of it.

Celebrate your epic fails in the staffroom and realise that “every day’s a school day”.

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