When the sad news of the basketball player Kobe Bryant’s death came through, it was followed by a remarkable statistic. For all his glittering success (two gold medals and an Oscar), he also held the record for having missed more shots than anyone else. Clearly it took skill to get into those shooting positions, and perhaps it’s a mark of his stature that he attempted more difficult shots than others, nevertheless it serves a good reminder of the relationship between failure and success: they are linked.
Sport regularly delivers this lesson. Jonny Wilkinson’s first start for England was a 76-0 thrashing from Australia – five years later his drop goal sealed England’s World Cup final win. (Sometimes even failure itself is the success – see Cool Runnings or Eddie the Eagle). In schools, however, the value of failure can be treated with suspicion. Too much failure is demoralising, just as cheap success is worth little. The right amount of failure, however, is an essential part of progress*. Computer games are brilliant at exploiting this. Gamers do not expect to complete a game the first time they play it. Instead, they navigate frequent, low-risk failures. Whilst progress is impeded by the failure, it’s not arrested altogether. Instead of going back to the beginning, you only re-tread the last few minutes of gameplay to make the attempt again. Tellingly, such low-stakes failures encourage perseverance more than low-stakes rewards. On a Snakes and Ladders board, there are usually more Snakes than Ladders (perhaps so too in Life).
In school, therefore, a certain amount of failure is healthy. Crucially, the impact needs to be manageable and the re-set easily achieved. Feedback will always include what went right, not just what went wrong. Just as importantly, there needs to be a sense that progress is possible. This is why a healthy co-curricular programme at a school is vital. When there’s enough breadth, you ensure that pupils find an area of strength from which they can draw confidence. Similarly, you also make sure that they are encountering failure in a low-risk environment. We put our after-school clubs in the middle of the afternoon, so that all the children have to do them. Sporty children do cookery, bookish ones bushcraft, shy pupils sailing or clay-pigeon shooting. It may not matter if they don’t make great strides in pottery, but it does matter that they experience that.
Sticking with pottery, in an experiment a ceramics teacher once divided their class and set them separate challenges. One half were to focus on the quality of their pots, the others only the quantity. Joyfully, the ones who were simply tasked with making as many pots as possible ended up making the better creations. Their repeated, small failures along the way were more instructive than the more careful, failure-adverse attempts of the other group; Kobe Bryant scored more baskets because of all the ones he missed.
Simon Head is Headmaster of Chafyn Grove.