The school teaching students that it's OK to fail
In a world where top ATARs and success are celebrated, one Melbourne school is embracing failure.
On Monday, the worst stuff-ups of Ivanhoe Girls’ Grammar School teachers will be projected onto screens in every classroom as the school kicks off Failure Week.
“We are trying to curb an increasing trend we are seeing in students around perfectionism and concerns about grades, outcomes and achievement,” the school’s head of counselling Bridget McPherson said.
“We want our students to recognise that failure, and making mistakes, is a really crucial part of learning.”
The raw and personal stories are designed to normalise failure.
One teacher at the high-achieving school details how she failed part of her teaching degree.
Another writes about how she started a historical tours business which collapsed ahead of its first event, leaving tourists stranded.
Students from prep to year 12 will be taught new skills that they will struggle to master, including abstract painting, juggling, cryptic crosswords, reciting medieval poetry and dancing.
At the end of the week, in front of hundreds of their peers in a packed auditorium, the girls will display these new skills and most likely, stuff up.
“The whole idea of the week is to get students not only to fail but to be OK about publicly failing,” Dr McPherson said.
“One of the big issues is that students are reluctant to display their learning or their knowledge or their curiosity for fear of not being right.”
The initiative is aimed at building resilience – an education buzzword that promises to prepare students for the real world, ward off mental health issues and help them succeed.
Overseas students who outperform their Australian peers in international education rankings are more resilient, according to Kevin Donnelly, a senior research fellow at the Australian Catholic University.
“Asian kids, in particular, are more resilient,” he said, singling out students from Singapore, Shanghai, Hong Kong, South Korea and Japan.
“They have a stronger sense of their own ability to overcome adversity and to meet challenges. Even though it might be difficult and they may have failed, they have a willingness and ability to overcome adversity and work hard.”
For a long time, there’s been a perception that failure damages people, according to Professor Stephen Dinham, Associate Dean of the University of Melbourne’ Graduate School of Education.
“We have bred a generation where it’s not OK to get critical feedback. It’s not OK to tell someone that they haven’t reached a certain standard,” he said.
“We tend to get feedback on effort rather than achievement.”
The thinking was that positive feedback would boost students’ self-esteem, leading to improvements in their learning.
“We know that’s not the case,” Professor Dinham said.
“When you give kids a lot of positive reinforcement and no negative feedback … it tends to confuse them and gives them a false sense of how they are going. It sets up a situation where they get into the big world and suddenly they are not as good as they think they are.”
If handled properly, failure gives students feedback that helps them reach the required standard, he said.
“That’s a good thing.”
House captain Lucy Wong comes from an academic family – both her parents are doctors – and she initially put a lot of pressure on herself to achieve top VCE results.
But the aspiring actor realised that she didn’t want to bust herself to achieve an ATAR of 99.
Lucy wants to study theatre and acting at the Victorian College of the Arts, courses where entry is based on auditions.
“Acting is obviously going to encounter a lot of failure, a lot of rejection,” the year 12 student said. “I am hoping that Failure Week makes me totally immune.
“Taking the foot off the gas of needing to achieve, achieve, achieve and be perfect has been so enlightening.”