Tony Gurr

How have you FAILED today? (and, who might “find out” about it…)

In Book Reviews, News & Updates (from the CBO) on 19/03/2012 at 3:26 pm


At a recent teacher training symposium I was “told off” for being “overly negative”!

Now, those of you that know me might think that this was a bit unfair. I am, as you know, a veritable “ray of sunshine”an eternal optimist, even…



So, why would someone suggest that little ‘ole me was less than “positive”? Well, it seems that the trainer in question had been listening to a few of things I had been saying over the day (…least she was awake). Things like:

  • What was the real problem?
  • What did you get wrong in the initial stages?
  • What did you learn from messing up?
  • What other weaknesses did that expose? How did you fix them? 

OK, I may have used phrases like “screw up”, too – but what was interesting was the way in which so many of my “core” phrases were “seen” as carrying an unnecessarily “less-than-positive” message. This was evidenced in the way I was asked to modify my own language – I was advised that I should be using phrases like “areas for improvement” or “challenges” and avoid words like “problems” or “failure”.

Since when did education become a “no FAILURE” zone…

And, when did it become acceptable for us not to say what we mean…(does that also imply that we should not mean what we say)?


Today, we can hardly open a newspaper or download a web page without being confronted with headlines reporting of the “failures” of education systems, the so-called screw ups of schools and universities and the gaffs in the way we run the business of LEARNing. With so many reports on our “mistakes” (and if we believe the maxim about the importance of LEARNing from these) we should be LEARNing, ADAPTing and TRANSFORMing as if we were on steroids!

Perhaps, the reason these articles or reports have become such a staple of our day-to-day media is that we have not been exploring our soft spots, our mistakes, our failures…enough.

I get that many more “traditional” trainers still like to open their workshops with a choral rendition of “Kum bay ya, my Lord, kum bay ya, O Lord, kum bay ya” – and hand out flowers with their resource packs.

But, come on! Who are we kidding, really?


I think a lot of these sentiments stem from the sensitivity we trainers and teacher educators have when giving feedback to others (especially in the context of classroom observation or performance reviews) – sensitivity that is wholly required.

However, when we extend this approach to allthingseducation and avoid the whole issue of “failure” – we miss the many of the opportunities for meaningful exploration, for real growth and powerful LEARNing.

Rather than avoiding discussion of our failures or mistakes – we need to embrace them, analyse them and LEARN from them.

But, it’s not just teacher educators.


We do not like to talk about “failure” in education (full stopperiod). And, sadly, still like to play the “blame game” and opt for use of “smoke-and-mirrors” then the “fit-hits-the-shan“.

This is why I was so pleased to see a recent post from Peter DeWitt on “The Benefits of Failure”– and then another a few days ago “What is Failure?” (in Education Week).

I loved his honesty:

For full disclosure, I have failed many times. I have failed as a friend, and as a teacher. As a young student I was retained in elementary school and spent a great deal of my formative years failing a variety of subjects. I dropped out of a couple of community colleges and that was after barely graduating from high school. I have seen failure many times and learned a great deal. First and foremost, I never wanted to fail again.

Haven’t we ALL?


The problem is that we do not find many similar “confessions” from our Principals or Rectors, from our Deans or HoDs – even fewer from our Ministries of Education!

So, to gain a few insights into the real benefits of failure we might need to turn to a few non-educators (for now) – Tim Hartford or Paul Schoemaker, for example. Both Hartford and Schoemaker have published best-sellers recently that openly advocate a more adaptive, experimental approach to the application of trial and error in business – and seek to encourage CEOs and business leaders to view failure as a “gift”. Both of them are great story-tellers and pack their pages with example after example of failures and mistakes from the worlds of business and politics.


Hartford was very canny is choosing the title of his book – “Adapt”. After all, ADAPTation lies at the heart of LEARNing – and, we could argue, at the heart of the human condition itself. He’s obviously, in addition to his amazing level of literacy in allthingseconomics, very well-read in the work of Charles Darwin and draws strongly on the notion of “evolution”.

He points out:

Hartford, and Schoemaker too, both sing the praises of screwing up royally – and help us see that failure is both necessary and useful…for success!

Schoemaker takes this a step further and even suggests that we all need to consider making even more mistakeson purpose. Indeed, this is the whole point of the book and he gives us some great advice on how brilliant (not “dumb”) mistakes can be promoted, planned and “mined” – to maximise the potential for real LEARNing.

It’s so easy to see his point. For example, how many of us would not even be reading this post, if Alexander Flemming had been working in a “no FAILURE zone”:

Half of us would probably be dead!


As I read through Schoemaker’s recommendations, however, I couldn’t help thinking that there would be very few educational institutions ready, willing and able to base their development and strategic planning processes around the concept of “intentional mistake-making”.

Most of them are already scared to death of slipping up – or rather being seen to slip up. This is especially true in our universities and academies (of the ivory tower variety), where even admitting to “LEARNing” is frequently seen as an admission of ignorance – and “weakness”!

Failure (and making mistakes) is an important initial first step in LEARNing and ADAPTation (TRANSFORMation, even) – and few would disagree that most of us do need to tone down our over-use of “risk aversion” and experiment a lot more. However, the purpose of education lies in making meaningful differences to the lives of our learnersand some risks may be just too risky.


Hartford touches on this (albeit through the examples of “nuclear reactors” and banks that were, we assumed, too important to “fail”).

His solution is that we have to also consider making any experiments “survivable” and he draws on Peter Palchinshy’s 3 Principles:

  • Try new things, expecting that some will fail.
  • Make failure survivable: create safe spaces for failure or move forward in small steps.
  • Make sure you know when you have failed, or you will never learn.

Sensible man!


But, as he notes, advocating this type of approach and walking-our-talk are two very different things:


…this requires that we exercise that little “self-doubt muscle” we all have – and stop worrying if others see us exercising!



If you are interested in the “art” of failing or the “beauty” of making mistakes, why not take a look at the following:


  1. If I ever write a self-help book, it will be called The Power of Negative Thinking.

    Cheng Man Ch’ing (my t’ai chi teacher’s teacher’s teacher) had a saying “Invest in loss.” The way he became the greatest t’ai chi master of his generation was to go round challenging the best fighters he could find and getting the crap kicked out of him so he could learn how they did it.

    And to top it off, a quotation from Tim Ferriss: “Cultivate the art of letting small bad things happen.”

  2. Now here’s a bunch of other people who would agree with you, Tony…

    I didn’t fail the test, I just found 100 ways to do it wrong.
    Benjamin Franklin

    Those who dare to fail miserably can achieve greatly.
    John F. Kennedy

    I’ve never been afraid to fail.
    Michael Jordan

    Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising up every time we fail.
    Ralph Waldo Emerson
    It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed.
    Theodore Roosevelt

    Edison failed 10, 000 times before he made the electric light. Do not be discouraged if you fail a few times.
    Napoleon Hill

    The majority of men meet with failure because of their lack of persistence in creating new plans to take the place of those which fail.
    Napoleon Hill

    Do the one thing you think you cannot do. Fail at it. Try again. Do better the second time. The only people who never tumble are those who never mount the high wire. This is your moment. Own it.
    Oprah Winfrey

  3. Very interesting post! With trainees (and with my kids) I try to take the tack of reframing the failure as ‘what to work on’, because i’ve read and heard so much about the importance of focusing on the positive and I do generally believe this reinforces self esteem and gets the best from people. But not always. Sometimes you have to call a spade a spade and you’re not doing anyone any favours by giving them an ‘out’. Also the gentle approach a) takes a long time and b) sometimes simply isn’t understood…I know this, but I still find it hard. I’ll check out the links, I need to think more about this!

    • Hi Sophia,

      Thx for dropping in – I totally get the “spade thing” (I grew up in north Manchester – and sometimes we had to take the spade to the neighbours, most Friday nights, actually) 😉 However, there’s a lovely phrase in Turkish – roughly “You can only say as much as someone is ready to hear”. I didn’t quite get this when I arrived as a “young lad” (having been drug up where I was drug up). But, as I lost (some of) my Mancunian ways – I began to realise that while things might need to be said, I might not be the best person to say ’em 😉

      We can take things from those we have a strong bond with (like your other comment – I have a few pals that I can say “that was total cr3p” to – and it “works”) – we have enough trust (or have made enough deposits in the old “emotional bank accounts”) to be able to get away with that – expect it from eachother, even. We cannot do that with everyone – believe me, I know 😉 This is why I like the notion of “emotional literacy” so much – and, for observation to be really effective, we have to focus on the relationship as much as we do on “teaching literacy”. Trust breeds honesty – honesty breeds trust…just getting it bloody right is soooooooo tough 😉


  4. Oh, what I started off meaning to say, but got sidetracked by my own rambling…the most useful obs I ever had, and in fact 1 of only 2 I even remember, was where my DOS told me my lesson was basically crap. I was shocked but it was brilliant. He told me why, he made me observe him teach my class, and then he watched me every day for a week. Best thing that ever happened to my teaching.

    • BTW – I’m sure the DOS didn’t mean everything was terrible 😉 But, I’m glad he did what he did – he was “useful” and he cared enough to give you that much time – sounds like a great guy 😉


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