Mrs Hanbury headmistress talking with students outside
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You will I am sure remember Melanie Phillip’s book “All must have prizes” published in 1996, which lambasted the trend at the time to give children rewards and prizes for everything and never to let a child think they hadn’t won. This behaviour may have been a backlash against the sort of schooling some of us will remember when getting an answer wrong meant a slap across the knuckles with a ruler.

There are clearly problems with this approach:  when pupils in lessons actually do get the wrong answer they are led to believe that there is something right about it, in there, hidden, because there has to be.

I remember two year olds being told to “draw a tree” to impress their relatives with how great they were at drawing. Many learned the easy trick: just draw any old scribble – that would be more than adequate to placate mother, and indeed it was: mothers filled their toddlers’ ears with praise and delight: completely empty praise, obvious even to a two year old. Do I blame the mums? No, it was how we were all encouraged to respond. I’m not suggesting we should critique the drawing skills of a two-year-old, but we shouldn’t reward what is patently a no-effort scrawl with what is also patently empty praise.

This combination of empty praise alongside a constant searching for ways to make children think that the wrong answer was somehow, in some sort of way, a bit right-ish, and the message is clear: getting it wrong, or being less-than-brilliant at something, is such a bad thing that no one even dares suggest it! 

How, as a child, do you start to fix points of achievement in your own mind with no background knowledge to work from? Is it any wonder that, from the child’s point of view, they feel the rug is pulled from under them when they reach the stage where their work is being more objectively assessed (whether in class tests or exams) and suddenly they are getting answers wrong and not achieving full marks – who told them this would happen? How are they to deal with it? What on earth happens next?

For anyone who thinks these are issues which only apply in the education sector, and therefore assumes that all the answers must lie within education: the first time I came across this problem was when working as a management consultant in the 1990s.  Most consultancy projects require clients to change ways of working because improvement is needed in their business (otherwise, why pay management consultants?). The majority of client staff hated this: the risks involved in changing how they did things was frightening; in many cases they feared their jobs were on the line. Clinging to the fraying rope of well-understood practices and procedures was a lot safer than letting go of the rope to grab the thin thread of hope which was a new system. What if it didn’t work? Better the devil you know…..

This is when I first began to think about the important role played by simple fear of failure.  How many British businesses have failed to thrive, or even gone bust, because essential change wasn’t needed because of fear of failure?

Attempting to remove fear of failure does not lie solely in our schools, but schools are ideally placed to help.  However, they start with a disadvantage as schools are perceived by students as places where they are expected to GET THINGS RIGHT. Why would anyone ask you a question if they didn’t expect you to try to get the right answer? So ingrained is this view that, when students get faced with questions to which we all know there is no right answer (e.g., what is your opinion about ….?), the student will give their opinion, then follow it with a question to their teacher: “I know that’s my answer, but what is the right answer?”

We must work hard to change this attitude: learning is not about getting things right all the time, it is about experimenting and trying new ideas and methods. Sometimes you will fail but you will learn more in the process.

Embedding this in schools has to start with the teachers themselves. A lot of training and support is needed because, after all, we have grown up in the era of getting it right at all costs. We have also been trained to enable our students to get the right answers to achieve top exam grades.

Just to make matters worse, schools aren’t the only places with influence over young people and their attitudes to learning. However hard we work as teachers, home and parents are part of the equation and it is very hard for the average parent to be relaxed about their child failing. Many are so worried about it that they seek to fix everything so that their  child never has to deal with the disappointment of failure. These helicopter parents are doing a lot of damage. As their child’s version of international search and rescue, they are preventing their children from learning how to solve their own problems and from gaining the confidence in themselves that is an essential requirement of maturing.

My advice to parents is to toughen up – those who micro manage their children’s lives only do this to save themselves the worry and unhappiness of dealing with unhappy children. These children will recover from disappointment far faster than their parents.

So how do we go about teaching resilience in a place where you’re supposed to get things right?

There are many great researchers and writers on this topic, both within and beyond the education sector. Carol Dweck’s theories of the growth mindset is the one which set me going in this field: intelligence is not fixed but can be grown and developed over time.  

Guy Claxton’s work has influenced how we at Lady Eleanor Holles School seek to embed the notion of the growth mindset among students.  At LEH, we are not aiming to produce experts at the end of 6th form, we are aiming to produce expert learners so that they can apply their learning skill to anything which life throws at them in the future.

So what does this actually look like in the classroom?

Life isn’t easy in an LEH classroom, for the teachers or the students, but it is lively, focused and engaging. The pupils are increasingly aware of the difference between learning and performing: knowing that there is a time when the performance will be important (GCSE and A level exams) and knowing that we will make sure they are ready to perform at their very best when the time comes. Meanwhile in class they understand that the learning part of this process requires that they take risks, grapple with problems and seek to develop understanding for themselves or in collaboration with their peers. They expect it to be hard at times, but they gradually learn the right techniques for themselves. Teachers support this, rather than just telling them what to do.

As well as leaving the students to reach their own answers, helping one another, and sometimes getting hints and tips from their teacher, we leave time for reflection on the process of learning as well as learning itself. How did they learn something? How can they apply this method in their future learning?

Frankly, this really all is a lot more interesting and fun than just having your teacher tell you what to do and how to do it so as to aim for the right answers every time!

We talk about getting things wrong quite a lot – repetition does remove stigma and anxiety. We can laugh about it and be relaxed in the knowledge that it’s normal and ordinary to get things wrong as you are learning.

To get the message across to those who are uncertain about it, we remind adults how often they may have got things wrong in their own lives. How often have they failed to achieve a goal? How many of you have had an interview for a job which you didn’t get?  These are important messages for our young people, especially if their parents and other adults that they know are holding down impressive-sounding jobs and appear never to have made mistakes or had failures along the way.

Assemblies which include adults telling stories about their failures in life can be very useful!

There is an important side bar to all of this: failure with no learning attached is demoralising. Repeating the same mistakes making no noticeable progress is debilitating. Malcolm Gladwell identified the notion that it takes 10,000 hours of sustained practice to become expert at anything. Matthew Syed added to that the notion of deliberate effort. This type of learning only works well if you have input from a skilled teacher/trainer who will make the practice and the effort focused and meaningful.   We in school must aim to be those skilled teachers and trainers.

And what do we do when we ARE successful? Encouraging teenagers to be appropriately proud of real achievement is crucial. I am now going to revert to cliché and caricature: girls often don’t want to appear arrogant or conceited so underplay their achievements; boys may exaggerate their achievement and show-off.  The use of the words ‘appropriate’ and ‘real’ help to overcome both problems. It isn’t appropriate to be proud that you have won a lottery prize – no effort, pure luck – but it is appropriate to be proud that you achieved your best ever exam result after real effort on your part.

By Mrs Hanbury - Head Mistress of LEH School

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