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Failure or Deferred Success


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Liz Beattie, a retired teacher, will next week argue at a conference of the Professional Association of Teachers that teachers should "delete the word 'fail' from the educational vocabulary to be replaced with the concept of “deferred success”. She argues that repeated failure, such as in exams, can damage pupils' interest in learning.

Wesley Paxton, a member of the association's council, is supporting the motion. "Elsewhere we applaud those who persevere, like marathon contestants who take days to complete. It's time we made the word 'fail' redundant and replaced it with 'please do a bit more'," he said.

Education Secretary Ruth Kelly told the Today programme on BBC Radio Four: "For that particular proposal, I think I might give them nought out of 10.

As we know Ruth Kelly is very keen on being graded. Apparently, her life has been full of exam passes and educational successes. Like many who are successful in exams, she is totally lacking in empathy and appears to have no understanding what it is like to be labelled a “failure”. Although you would have thought the constantly criticisms she has received about her time as education secretary, would have taught her some humility.

Wesley Paxton’s comments are worth thinking about. In other areas of life we avoid telling people they are failures. We constantly use positive reinforcement in trying to help people improve. Would we tell someone who takes 4 hours to run their first marathon that they are a failure. Of course we wouldn’t. We would offer words of encouragement in order that they continue to try and improve. Our fear would be that the words “failure” would stop them running in any future marathons.

When was the last time a prime minister use the word failure when sacking ministers? Only yesterday Blair was defending the security forces against the claim that they “failed” us over the London bombing. He also refused to use the word when describing the MI5 reports on those WMD in Iraq that did not exist.

However, when it comes to children, we can, according to Ruth Kelly, use the word failure to describe the attempts of students. In fact, you are to be graded 0 out of 10 if you should share the views of Liz Beattie. Yet what Beattie is saying is correct. If you believe that what you are teaching can be learnt, if the child fails to obtain that skill, etc., they are experiencing “deferred success”. If the child believes you think they will eventually experience success, then they will as well. It is then only a matter of time before they succeed.

Our mad obsession with testing and grading appears to have completely distorted the teaching process. It has taken a retired teacher to point this out. However, will our brainwashed teaching profession be able to recognize this?

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  • 2 weeks later...

The proposal by a member of the Professional Association of Teachers that the word "failure" should be excised from the classroom was met with predictable mirth, rather than serious debate. That was partly because the proposed euphemism "deferred success" is pretty hilarious. "Yes you did fail your driving test for mowing down several pedestrians on that zebra crossing, Mr Scudworthy, but think of it as deferred success. On your next test you'll probably only ram the car into a tree, and then the time after, you might even pass, if the examiner manages to press the ejector-seat button in time. "

Some outstanding people are perfectly capable of slipping the deadly noose of being labelled a failure in childhood, and having the last laugh. Others, unfortunately, are less robust. Einstein was called "Mr Dullard"at school. Nelson Rockefeller was castigated for poor spelling, but was clearly dyslexic. From a wealthy background, he went on to graduate cum laude and become vice-president of the US. Hitler's teacher was unimpressed by his powers of leadership, which is sometimes cited as an example of acute professional misjudgment, but could be seen as one of the greatest teacher insights in the history of education.

Failure is an inescapable feature of human existence, for no life path can be perfectly successful. Goethe summed up the situation neatly in a sentence: "Es irrt der Mensch, so lang er strebt " people make mistakes when they strive. For Goethe the idea of "streben", striving, having a go, was an important element in life, but miscues are inescapable. Many children become paralysed by perceived failure and their learning switch goes into the "off "position, while others cheerfully hurdle setbacks and then surge on upwards, wiser and fitter.

Coping with setbacks is difficult for all concerned. I remember tears of frustration, when learning the piano, at trying to play both right-and left-hand parts together. Now I see my grandson in the same situation and share his angst. When asked how he coped with the more searing moments chairing debates in the House of Lords, Lord Hailsham replied that he just sat there thinking "bollocks to the bishops ". Children are still unsure and insecure, so few have recourse to such therapeutic irreverence.

Parents face the same dilemma as teachers. They are torn between wanting to support and comfort their children through what may well seem profound, though hopefully temporary, grief, yet avoid turning their offspring into spineless wimps who implode at the slightest blow. Tough it or bluff it?

In the end we tell lies, gently, of course, but in a good cause. I admit to feeling uneasy. When children bring home that hideously crafted papier mâché garden gnome, product of the school's "enterprise awareness" project to spawn future giants of commerce, do you say "That is such monstrous rubbish, any real business would go bust in seconds "? Or do you tender a fiver for Brickville primary school's business and enterprise project, so some nine-year-old "managing director" can open another "production line" and make even more of the unsaleable crap?

The political response to "deferred success" was short. Ruth Kelly, something of an expert in the realm of failure, one would have thought, said that she gave it nought out of 10. The idea deserves a bit more reflection than that from the Duchess of Dudsville, but perhaps it takes a nought out of 10 to know one.

Just think, Ruth, when you bore your audiences rigid by reading your speech like the speaking clock, patronise a room full of headteachers, alienate most of the teaching profession by turning down the Tomlinson report and then blaming the "education world" for clouding the debate and giving the wrong impression, these are not failures. No siree. As there is clearly even more to come, just think of them as deferred excess.

http://education.guardian.co.uk/egweekly/s...1540409,00.html

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Just catching up on the forum after 8 weeks away in Europe. Isn't the important thing how we deal with failure both as teachers, parents and as individuals? Everyone will fail at something, it's inescapable and it seems to be even more part of our lives than ever with reality TV, quiz shows, sport etc.

I believe it's essential that children are taught to accept failure graciously, treat it as a learning experience, don't get too hung up on it, but look for the next challenge if that's what they want.

I am highly uncompetitive. I am an only child with very non-competitive parents. Winning and losing are not big in my life. But with my own children I encouraged them to participate in whatever they were interested and cheered them when they won, consoled them when they lost and encouraged them to do better next time if that's what they wanted. Surely that's just simple common sense reaction to life's competitions.

Children must learn that they CAN fail or they are going to grow up very dicontented adults. Then they need to learn how to handle it.

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Children must learn that they CAN fail or they are going to grow up very discontented adults. Then they need to learn how to handle it.

I agree totally Jean.

We all fail much more than we succeed in the "competitive" areas of life. Far better to equip children to compete hard but within the right sense of context.

I also agree with John that teachers in the past have been too fast to label children (usually working class children) as "failures".

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I believe it's essential that children are taught to accept failure graciously, treat it as a learning experience, don't get too hung up on it, but look for the next challenge if that's what they want.

I am highly uncompetitive. I am an only child with very non-competitive parents. Winning and losing are not big in my life. But with my own children I encouraged them to participate in whatever they were interested and cheered them when they won, consoled them when they lost and encouraged them to do better next time if that's what they wanted. Surely that's just simple common sense reaction to life's competitions.

This is a very difficult issue. It is true that we live in a very competitive world and that we will be letting our children down if we did not prepare them for this. At the same time, most young people do not react well if they are told they have “failed”. We therefore have to be very careful how we respond to a lack of success. Over the weekend I watched my grandson being taught how to swim and how to ride a bike. His parents only used positive reinforcement terms in their attempts to help him succeed in these tasks. I am sure he would not have responded well to being told he was a “failure”. As the teacher said, deferred success is a far more positive approach to education.

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But that's just common sense - no one sensible is going to use the word failure to a child who is being taught something they haven't been taught before such as swimming or riding a bike. Of course you encourage them and act positively. On the other hand, once the child has learnt to swim/ride a bike and wants to enter some swimming/bike races, they are going to either win or lose. Then a sensible parent uses the opportunity to teach them about winning and losing and how to deal with it. I can't understand what is difficult about knowing how to handle these things if you are reasonably intelligent. The problem seems to come with less intelligent/educated parents who drive their children to win at any cost and berate them if they lose, and lose their patience when a child doesn't quickly succeed at something, but we're never going to completely eliminate humans who aren't very insightful or self-aware. Neither are we likely to eliminate those at the other end of the extreme who see any sort of "failure", however mild and unharmful to the child, as unacceptable. I sometimes think we live in one of the most "uncommon-sense" eras that's ever been around!!!

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Just catching up on the forum after 8 weeks away in Europe. Isn't the important thing how we deal with failure both as teachers, parents and as individuals? Everyone will fail at something, it's inescapable and it seems to be even more part of our lives than ever with reality TV, quiz shows, sport etc.

I believe it's essential that children are taught to accept failure graciously, treat it as a learning experience, don't get too hung up on it, but look for the next challenge if that's what they want.

I am highly uncompetitive. I am an only child with very non-competitive parents. Winning and losing are not big in my life. But with my own children I encouraged them to participate in whatever they were interested and cheered them when they won, consoled them when they lost and encouraged them to do better next time if that's what they wanted. Surely that's just simple common sense reaction to life's competitions.

Children must learn that they CAN fail or they are going to grow up very dicontented adults. Then they need to learn how to handle it.

One one hand I agree with you, how can one enjoy the true pleasures of success if they don't have failure to compare it to? However, our schooling system lets students down in that it doesn't facilitate learning in the best possible way for everyone. A system of competitive markers and levels works for some and not for others. I think debating the issue of semantics is not the most important point. "Fail" or "deferred success" is the same thing. We need to shift our focus. I have always been taught that it is the process, our journey (life), and not the destination (death), that is of key importance. Shouldn't this be the case with education too?

Laura Di Giorgio

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