Mistakes

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Your best teacher is your last mistake (Ralph Nader)

It’s horrible when we get something wrong. Nobody likes it! It can be horribly exposing, and it’s perfectly natural to feel upset, or embarrassed, or even ashamed. But, of course, we make mistakes all the time. They are a natural part of the learning process. So how can best use our mistakes to make progress?

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FAIL: first attempt in learning

The first thing is to accept that mistakes are inevitable. They will always happen. Nobody is perfect. Secondly, if you are doing something difficult – which, in school, we expect our students to do – the likelihood of getting it wrong is much higher. So the most important thing is not getting it right first time, but getting it right in the end.

This video from the Khan Academy shows how, as young children, we aren’t afraid to fall down, fail and try again – for example when learning to walk or ride a bike. But, as we grow, we become increasingly self-conscious and easily embarrassed. This shift can actually get in the way of our learning as we are less willing to take risks and try something new, worried that we might get it wrong, and forgetting that mistakes are a natural part of learning.

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Minnesota Vikings defender Jim Marshall in 1970

We can rest easy that none of us will ever make so drastic a mistake as Jim Marshall. In 1964, Marshall played American Football for the Minnesota Vikings against the San Fransisco 49ers. When one of the 49ers players fumbled the ball, it came loose, and Marshall was able to scoop it into his hands. He looked up, saw the goalposts ahead of him, and ran as fast as he could to the end zone to score what he thought was a touchdown. It was when the 49ers players started congratulating him that he realised he had run the wrong way down the pitch into his own end zone, scoring a safety and conceding two points to the opposition.

How do you recover from a mistake as catastrophic and public as that? Marshall did his best to forget about it, and crucially to learn from it. He went on to recover a total of 30 fumbles for the Vikings in his career, still an NFL record for the most recovered by any single player – and he never again ran the wrong way down the pitch. You can watch a video about Marshall’s experience here.

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At Churchill, to learn effectively, we believe in the value of:

  • Determined and consistent effort
  • A hunger to learn new things
  • Challenging ourselves to go beyond what is comfortable
  • Viewing setbacks and mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow
  • Seeking and responding to feedback
  • Encouraging others to succeed

Having a healthy attitude to mistakes, and having the confidence and determination to take risks in our learning and try new things, are all central to our success in learning. So long as we make sure we’re facing the right way before we set off.

 

What’s your goal?

What are our motivations when we take on tasks in school? As part of the research I did when writing my book, I found some really interesting discussions about this issue. When we approach a task, the end goal we have in mind can have a big impact on how useful or effective that task is, both in terms of learning and also in terms of our well being.

There are two types of goals when taking on a task in school:

  1. Performance goal: if a student is motivated by a performance goal, then their primary concern is how well they do in the task – how successful they are, where they placed in relation to other students, what their score or grade was. They take on tasks to do well. If they are worried they might not do well, then students motivated by a performance goal might seek a way to avoid the task, fearing that it might expose them as “a failure.”
  2. Learning goal: if a student is motivated by a learning goal, then their primary concern is how the task helps to improve or develop them, through gains in knowledge or skills. They take on tasks to improve themselves, to learn something new, and to develop. If you are motivated by a learning goal, then failure to fully complete a challenging task is an opportunity to learn from mistakes, not a judgment on you as a person.

Students motivated by performance goals focus on avoiding failure. This can result in using tactics to get out of doing tasks that might be difficult, or even engaging in what the researchers call “self-handicapping” so that they can blame someone or something else for why they didn’t do well:  

For example, a student might postpone completing a [piece of homework] until the last minute or stay up late partying the night before an important test. Although the student can now blame failure on a factor unrelated to her intelligence, she has sacrificed the chance to learn and excel.

from Academic Tenacity: Mindsets and Skills that Promote Long-Term Learning 

The research shows that students motivated by learning goals make better progress, are more resilient, are more likely to persist with difficult tasks, and seek out challenges – all features we want to encourage in our young people at Churchill.

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Learning goals at Churchill

At Churchill Academy & Sixth Form, the only time when students have a performance goal is in their final GCSE, A-level, BTEC or other public exams or assessments.

At every other time, tasks are designed and set up with a learning goal in mind.

School tests and internal exams

End of unit or end of year exams and tests are designed to help students in their learning. Revising for and completing the tests themselves are opportunities for retrieval practice, a learning strategy that has been shown to improve memory and long term learning. After students have completed their tests or exams, teachers will spend time with their classes going through their answers and their scripts, helping students learn from where they got things right, mistakes they made, and gaps in their learning revealed by the test. Of course, we want students to do well, and it is important that they try hard to do the best that they possibly can – but that is not the goal. The goal is to learn.

Performances and matches

Performances in drama, dance, music and sports matches are also learning experiences. Of course they are rehearsed or practised carefully, so that the performance is the best it can possibly be, but each performance is a learning experience. Each time a dancer steps onto a stage in front of an audience, it makes them a better dancer. Each football match played against “real” opposition builds the team’s and individuals’ skills and experience, making them better. Winning the match, or putting on a great show, is fantastic – but our aim is to learn.

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Challenges in school

Taking on a challenging or difficult task in school – in a lesson, as part of our extra-curricular activities, personally, or even socially – is an opportunity to learn and grow. It doesn’t matter if we don’t get it all right, or even if we get it wrong – because that’s not the point of taking it on. If we learn from the experience, it’s worth it.

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Success

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After last week’s blog about failure, I wanted to write a companion piece about success. We all want to be successful. We all aim for success. But what does success mean to you?

At the end of each school year at Churchill, we have our annual Celebration of Success events. These evenings aim to celebrate those student who have been successful in many different ways. Of course, academic success is a huge part of that. As a school you wouldn’t expect anything different! But, as an institution, we believe that personal and academic accomplishments are equally valuable, and we try to celebrate success in all its forms.

For some of us, a string of A* grades (or 7, 8 or 9s!) is a mark of success. For others, achieving a grade 4 will be a huge achievement. For some, winning the 1500m on Sports Day will bring that sense of pride; for others, simply finishing the race is worth even more. For those students who successfully complete their Duke of Edinburgh award, the feeling of success is palpable; I’m looking forward to handing out this year’s awards later this term.

These are all major achievements, which we rightly mark up as successes. But it’s important also to celebrate the small triumphs which occur every day. We know that for some students simply getting into school and making it through the day is a success to be celebrated. Finally grasping that difficult concept in a lesson, or having the courage to have a go at a challenging task, or recognising a mistake and going back to fix it – all of these are important successes that matter hugely to all of us.

Blackboard with the chemical formula of dopamine

There are interesting things happening in our brain when we are successful, with two different “feel good” chemicals being released: dopamine and serotonin. We get little shots of a chemical called dopamine when we get things done; I like to think of it as the “achievement” chemical. It exists in our brains to make sure we achieve our goals. The trouble with dopamine is that it doesn’t really differentiate between big successes and small successes, so you’ll get a little shot of dopamine if you find that pen you were looking for, even if you don’t start your homework. Dopamine can be tricky – it will reward you for completing smaller, less challenging tasks as well as the big important things.

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Serotonin molecule

Serotonin is released when we get recognition from other people for something we’ve done – it feels really, really good. But the great thing about serotonin is that it’s released in other people too. When you get a little dopamine shot from ticking off something important on your list, you feel good. When you achieve something that your teacher, your parents, or your friends think is great, they feel good too. Back in caveman times, serotonin helped members of tribes work and stay together by encouraging them to invest in each other. That’s what’s so great about working in a school. When students do well, I feel proud of them – and I feel good. How brilliant is that?

That’s why recognising and celebrating success is so important. When effort leads to achievement, we feel good about ourselves. When other people tell us they’re proud of us, or celebrate that success with us, we feel even better about ourselves – and they feel great too. It’s a win-win. So cherish those moments, and celebrate every success, no matter how small – they all count.

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Failure

In 1919, a young man was fired from his job at a newspaper for “lacking imagination” and “having no original ideas.” The young man’s name was Walt Disney. He went on to win 22 Academy Awards.

In 1998 an 11 year old boy was cut from his football team because a growth hormone deficiency made him shorter than other kids his age. The boy’s name was Lionel Messi. He went on to be named FIFA’s World Player of the Year four times.

On 1st January 1962 a band auditioned for Decca Records in West Hampstead, London. Decca rejected the band, saying “guitar bands are on the way out” and the group had “no future in show business.” The band was The Beatles. They went on to have 15 number one albums, sell 21.9 million singles in the UK, and change the face of music forever.

In 1985, aged 30, a successful businessman was fired from the company he had founded. “I was out — and very publicly out,” he recalled. “What had been the focus of my entire adult life was gone, and it was devastating.” He added, “I was a very public failure.” The man’s name was Steve Jobs. He went on to co-found Pixar Animation Studios, where he co-produced the first ever full-length computer animated film: Toy Story. He was lated re-hired by Apple, the company he had founded, and he went on to develop and launch the iPod, iPhone and iPad. Apple today is worth $900 billion. 

It would be easy to think about Walt Disney, Lionel Messi, The Beatles, or Steve Jobs and only to think of the successes. But those successes were only possible because of the unseen failures that preceded them.

Coping with failure

Failure is a big issue for all of us. None of us sets out on a task wanting to fail. It isn’t something desirable or positive. And, when it happens, it feels awful. But the hard fact is that some degree of failure is inevitable. We can’t be successful all the time and sometimes even the best laid plans come unravelled. For us at Churchill, our aim is to build understanding and acceptance that setbacks, mistakes and failures are part of the learning process, and to help our students react well when things don’t go the way we want them to.

We don’t seek failure out – that would be horrible! But equally we shouldn’t protect students from experiencing setbacks. The most important part of the process is showing them how to learn from the experience and improve as a result. When we are learning something new, it’s unreasonable to expect perfection first time – it’s going to take time and effort. We are constantly failing every day, but learning all the time, improving with each mistake, and getting closer and closer to our destination.

Question 1: Why did you fail?

Understanding the causes of failure help us to learn from it. Sometimes the answers to this question will be easy: I didn’t work hard enough. I didn’t prepare thoroughly enough. I didn’t fully understand what it was that I needed to do. In cases like this, the solutions will also be straightforward: work harder. Prepare. Go back and revise.

Sometimes, the answers will be less easy to find. Sometimes something completely unexpected will happen that makes it impossible to succeed. In these situations we we can also ask ourselves whether there was anything we could have done to forsee what went wrong, or whether there was anything we could have prepared for. If the answer is “no” then we can chalk those up to experience, but if the answer is “yes” then we can learn from it.

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Sometimes, you will know what went wrong, but you won’t know what to do about it. This is where teachers, mentors, tutors, family and friends really come into their own. Asking for help when you don’t know what to do next can feel like an admission of weakness, but it is actually a strength. Getting help from those who know more than you do, or who can do it better than you, will help you to get better too. And offering help to those that need it is part of our mission as an Academy – to “encourage others to succeed.”

Question 2: how do you feel?

Let’s not pretend that the feeling of failure is a pleasant one. It isn’t. It can be embarrassing, even humiliating to get something wrong in front of other people. It can be upsetting. If you’ve invested a lot of time, energy, hope and aspiration into a project, failure can be devastating.

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But failure is not fatal, and it is not permanent.

Acknowledging this simple truth is essential for us to learn and grow. It helps all of us to remind ourselves that the disappointment we feel when things go wrong is something that hurts now, but over time it will help us to be stronger and more resilient. It won’t hurt forever – and it could make us better.

Question 3: what have you learned?

Having experienced the horrible feeling of failure, we are faced with a choice. Part of us will certainly want to avoid that feeling in future by not trying – by avoiding the situation where we might fail again. If we do that, however, we risk the failure permanently affecting our confidence and limiting our ability to succeed in future.

Failure and learning

It takes courage and determination to pick ourselves back up and to have another go – but that is the only way to turn failure into learning. Work out where we went wrong, fix it, get help if we need it, and try again.

My failure

One failure that I will never forget comes from my time as the Head of an English Department. I was asked by a colleague to tell off a boy who had been disrespectful in her lesson. I checked the boy’s details on the computer, then went to find him at break time. When I saw him, I launched straight in to my best teacher telling-off, full of disappointment and indignation that this young man had dared to behave so poorly. After about two minutes, I paused for breath. “I think you might want my brother, sir,” said the young man – who had an identical twin.

Why did I fail? Because I didn’t check.

How did I feel? Very stupid.

What did I learn? Always – ALWAYS – check you’ve got the right person before you tell them off.

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We can’t get everything right all the time. But every time we get it wrong we learn more, and improve. Every failure, mistake, and setback is making us stronger, making us smarter. So be brave, keep going, and next time do it a little bit better.