Why We Should Ban the Word ‘Failure’

Posted: 19th June 2024


I recently listened to an audiobook called ‘The Stoic Challenge’. Stoicism is a school of philosophy that hails from ancient Greece and Rome and explores how we can face challenging situations and become more resilient. The author suggests that when you are faced with difficulty, rather than despairing, getting frustrated or angry, imagine that it is simply the stoic gods setting you a challenge. You could even imagine these gods to be either benevolent, trying to help you on your way to becoming a better human being, or the opposite. I rather like the idea of mischievous gods that are constantly taking pleasure in throwing barriers into our way like some bored creature from ancient Greek mythology. Nobody is suggesting that there are actual stoic gods. It’s more of a thought experiment than something to be taken literally. I was sceptical at first but decided to give it a go. I usually take the train and bike to work each day. I experience a fair amount of frustration with delayed trains, dangerous drivers and bad weather. Recently, when yet another van decided that they couldn’t wait 5 seconds to overtake me safely, I realised my time had come. This person had just put my safety at risk for their own convenience, surely they had been sent by the stoic gods to test me. To my surprise, reframing this situation helped me enormously. It became just another one of those moments in life you have to deal with. No point getting angry or frustrated and letting it ruin your day. You will have to try harder, stoic gods. Bring on the next test!

Reframing is a powerful tool. When I first started teaching at Channing, I was surprised by the response when I started a lesson with a quick assessment. The intention was solely to see how much my class had learned in order to inform my future teaching but the reaction was disproportionate. It took us 10 minutes to get over the word test. It elicited sheer panic in some and when I asked why, I got the answer I expected: what happens if I fail? My response was that you will fail at things in life. In fact, you will fail over and over again. To my mind there is therefore no point in being scared of failing or you risk being petrified by your own shadow. Instead, let’s do what I described earlier: reframe our idea of what failure actually is and, most importantly, do not use the word ‘failure’.

What are assessments actually for? They help teachers assess how much their class has learned and fine-tune future lessons to address issues the students found challenging. Similarly, students are able to get feedback on their learning and guidance on how to focus their revision work. The crucial aspect of assessments in my opinion though is identifying the unknown unknowns or, as students call it, ‘mind-blank’. A mind-blank does not actually exist. Rather, what we are seeing is the moment a student realises that whilst they thought they knew something, they were not as secure in their knowledge as they thought. Without the assessment they would not have known about this lack of understanding and they are now able to remedy this.

Calling the above process a failure is dramatising an important process: making mistakes is part of learning and an important one at that. It’s ok to find things tough. Talking about how we find something challenging is fine, but it also suggests that we can find ways to overcome this challenge if we have the right strategies. We use feedback to achieve exactly this. So, let’s reframe failure and talk about not fully understanding something yet. Let’s be positive and forward looking, as well as reflective, rather than defeatist. Stress can be a contagion. It starts with one student and before you know it, half the class needs breathing exercises. Let’s ban the word ‘failure’ from our vocabulary, imagine stoic gods throwing us a curveball for no reason other than because they can, and let’s enjoy the ride.

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