Growth mindset

How a toddler can teach you about failure

I remember hearing it around my daughter’s first birthday. She had just started to walk and the phrase reared its head. It comes from relatives, friends and sometimes even strangers.

“Aren’t you a clever girl?”

I know. It sounds like I am belittling the milestone event of my daughter successfully walking for the first time. But there are two parts to that previous sentence which underpin my belief on this subject.

The first part is ‘milestone’. It means to place a stone to mark the distance on the route to a particular place. So now we know two things. My daughter’s milestone of walking is neither the start nor the end of her journey. She didn’t just wake up at this destination in her developmental journey. She had been somewhere else, somewhere further back down the road. And she was still heading further up the road.

The second part is ‘first time’. In the sentence I said “successfully walking for the first time”. Let’s be clear. On this particular occasion, she successfully walked for the first time. That tells us something very important about how children learn and develop. If she successfully walked for the first time – there must have been occasions where she unsuccessfully walked.

And you’ve guessed it. There were. In fact, there were hundreds, maybe even thousands, of times where she unsuccessfully walked. But with each passing day and another tally of unsuccessful attempts to walk, she made slight improvements. She showed better balance, better posture, increased strength and the same, or sometimes increased, desire to succeed.

The clever bit isn’t the fact that she walked successfully on this one occasion. The real success can be found in the level of determination she showed over a sustained period of time and how she was able to use multiple failures to eventually form a pathway to success.

Here is what we can take away as educators – success is a process. It is a journey that happens over time.

The fact that so many people said to her over and over “Aren’t you clever?” shows that often we are guilty of forgetting this. The reason for this is because many adults have been hardwired by society to believe that the main currency for being successful is being right. And being right means we are clever. That getting things wrong means looking foolish or embarrassed.

The real truth is: nobody has ever learned anything from being right all of the time.

By accepting and owning your mistakes and faults you automatically have an advantage over anyone who denies they exist in the first place. This could come in the guise of accepting the good with the bad for a particular lesson you have taught, or initiative you have rolled out. Performing a ‘lessons learned’ activity (or a post-mortem) on a lesson, initiative or event will help identify any mistakes or failings and ensure that you can take positive action to improve them in the future.

The mistakes we have made in the past do not have to impact on our future. Very often, previous failures and the worry of not looking clever and being wrong can force us into future inaction. The internal voice we all use to talk ourselves tells us: “I tried that once before. I didn’t get it right that time. I won’t try again in case I get it wrong. If I get it wrong I won’t look clever.”

We often predict how the future will go based on what has happened before – and then build desire lines to reinforce these thoughts. But here’s the amazing thing that I’m guessing you already know: nobody can predict the future.

The past is history. The future is a mystery.

What if we start acknowledging and accepting mistakes happen, take responsibility for them and not cover them up, and then move on and not dwell on them?

This shift in thinking and attitude can change the practice of school leaders, especially when giving feedback to staff. Suddenly, instead of telling teachers that a particular aspect of their lesson wasn’t quite up to scratch, we can empower them to identify their mistakes themselves and help them move on.

In my experience I have sometimes felt that teachers have been told something wasn’t good enough, so the teacher tries to cover up or blame someone else for the mistake or failing. The first step to learning from mistakes is simply to acknowledge that they happen.

Mistakes – accept and acknowledge they exist, take responsibility for them, and move on.

Leave a Reply