Re-evaluating Failure

Failure is still seen as something to feel ashamed of rather than a vital component of eventual success. The need to succeed first time and our propensity towards perfection, however, can often lead to either the illusion of success or act as a barrier to it. Failure is ubiquitous, it’s experienced by everybody, from students learning new topics to world leaders dealing with crises – we all fail many times in our lives. Failure, however, also teachers us vital lessons but only if we are able to bounce back, dust ourselves down and try again.

It’s September 2019 and the cycling world championships are being held in my hometown. I’m standing only a few metres away from the finish line for the Women’s Junior Road Race. I catch sight of the leaders coming over the crest of the hill on Parliament Street as they prepare for the sprint along West Park. They include Sweden’s Wilma Olausson who’s looking like she may be in with a chance. As the group passes me a couple of the front riders go down, hitting the ground hard. Olausson becomes entangled momentarily in the chaos that ensues and it’s clear there is a problem with her bike. As she passes it over the barrier to a waiting mechanic, she’s more than aware of the other contenders passing her, her face displaying obvious frustration. It seems to take an age for the mechanics to pass the bike back to her, but when they do Wilma gets on and continues her journey to the finish line. Wilma was just 19 at the time, not much older than the young people I’ve taught over the years. She didn’t give up, even when things appeared hopeless.

In 2019 I was still writing my new book, Becoming Buoyant (due out in June), an exploration of how we can help students (and ourselves) to cope with the day-to-day hassles and setbacks that befall us all, so failure plays a major part in people’s ability to bounce back. The book is the culmination of nearly a decade of work, from my life as a teacher, a researcher and from personal experience. All of us have failed in some respect and it’s not just exams or sporting events that result in our plans diverting from the expected or hoped-for outcomes.

Role models are useful, especially those that display a tendency to conscientiousness and hard work rather than ones seen as innately talented (as researchers from Penn State researchers have recently concluded). Highlighting the setbacks faced by athletes like Wilma or writers who have suffered one rejection after another before becoming successful (note: Stephen King’s On Writing is a must read in this respect) is more effective than, say, Einstein or Mozart. There’s no doubt that the latter faced setbacks and worked hard, but they are often cited in respect to their genius rather than their determination.

Accept and Bounce Back

Stressing that it’s okay to fail is only part of it; we then need to help students use these experiences in a positive and constructive way. Of course, it’s not just about students; we all need to know what to do when our plans are scuppered. However, in a society where exam results are so highly regarded and success is often measured in how many qualifications you have, it becomes even more important to think carefully about those youngsters who struggle to meet the high standards society, parents and themselves has set. Giving youngsters permission to fail is just the beginning and telling them to work harder becomes part of the problem rather than part of the solution because they still don’t always know how to succeed or how to bounce back when they fail.

This ability to bounce back (known as academic buoyancy) plays a major role in academic success. Those students who are said to be buoyant share several attributes that appear to assist them, known as the 5Cs. But we can also use the 5Cs outside academic settings; a means to which we can reach our goals and lead more fulfilling lives. The original model of academic buoyancy was developed by Australian Educational Psychologist Andrew Martin following extensive studies of the attributes more likely to result in academic success.

The Original 5Cs

C #1 Confidence or self-efficacy. If we have confidence in our ability to complete a given task, then we tend to work harder and persist for longer because we realise that, in the end, we can achieve.

C #2 Coordination or planning. Setting goals and breaking these down into sub-goals allows us to mark out our journey from where we are to where we want to be. This would include skills including time management and the formation of useful habits.

C #3 Control is perhaps the factor that is most related to setbacks because it includes notions of how we attribute failure. For example, is failure specific to a certain task, or do we assume that if we fail at one task we will fail at everything? Or, do we believe that failure is a permanent fixture of our lives (I always fail) or that it is specific to time, place and task (I failed this time, but next time I’ll succeed).

C #4 Composure or low anxiety is another important factor in academic buoyancy. Anxiety results in all sorts of negative behaviours (although it can also help us, so long as it remains within certain parameters). Anxious students score lower in tests, perhaps because it leads to less effective working memory. Furthermore, anxiety and its related components (e.g. worry, status-quo bias, procrastination) can impact our daily lives beyond academic settings.

C #5 Commitment (or conscientiousness, grit and all those other constructs that seem similar to each other). This is, in part, related to personality. However, we can learn to be more conscientiousness, committed or ‘gritty’.

C #6 – Community

In Becoming Buoyant I add a sixth C — Community. People rarely exist in isolation and often it’s other people and processes that help to push us forward and challenge us. Schools are a good example of this. Studies into resilience conducted over the past 50 years or so have found that factors within the community, such as schools, teachers, youth workers and religious institutions can provide the support that help young people thrive in adverse situations. Community takes academic buoyancy beyond the individual and into the world.

Emphasising these six components and breaking them down into their constituent parts allows us to concentrate our efforts on those factors that are more likely to help us cope with setbacks and, therefore, succeed in the long term. In addition, this helps us to build psychological capital — the skills and attitudes that we can adapt for different situations and help us thrive. Failure is, therefore, never the end result and setbacks are rarely insurmountable.

Coping with setbacks and failure will never be easy – each time we fail to reach our goals or recognise our plans we will all experience a complex combination of emotions. We might want to give up or adjust our plans and try again. The psychological components that determine what we do aren’t necessarily innate and include several factors that can be nurtured through planning, habit formation and support.

Becoming Buoyant: Helping Teachers & Students Cope with the Day to Day will be published by Routledge on 24th June 2020. You can pre-order now.

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