Guest Post: Fear of failure and the education system

On Saturday I watched TV3's The Nation's piece on the current Minister of Education, Hekia Parata.

I was struck by the Minister's phrase, from her maiden statement to parliament, in particular her comments directed at education.

"We must adopt an uncompromising attitude that failure is not an option. All our other aspirations for economic growth, raised standards of living, and national confidence and pride will flow from getting these basics right.
"Failure is not an option."

It is, on the face of it, a fine statement, that speaks to conviction, emphatic-ness and a desire to accept nothing less than the very best.  All laudable sentiments from a politician. 

And I don't deny that this is just one sentence from a wider speech, but language matters, and I believe a statement like that helps to frame the culture of practice that a politician leads. Can we actually frame a society wide conversation about public education with that blunt rejection of failure? What happens to our systems if we reject failure as an option?

Instead of stating that "Failure is not an option", and living by that dictum, should we as @therepaulpowers tweeted, consider that "Failure is quite clearly an opinion." With that perspective, can we allow considered and critical opinions to shape our conversation about what failure actually is and means in practice?

As a culture, we celebrate moments of success, gold medals and world records. But behind each of those moments are effort, toil and setbacks. Those setbacks are a series of failures, that when persevered through and built upon can lead to success. But as a culture, we don't often reflect on that effort and that long progression of failure, nor do we celebrate it. 

In sports there are many examples of failure being a reality. These excellent basketball players have never held aloft an NBA championship, while these footballers never even made it to the World Cup. 

Would we consider them failures?

The 2011 All Blacks were rightly hailed as successful as they won the Rugby World Cup. That victory salved the reminder of 25 years of incessant failure. It's possibly useful to consider that in that same time period France, competed in three finals, while the All Blacks only two. Naturally we see the All Blacks as more successful, because they won the two they were in, but France have arguably a more successful RWC record than the  All Blacks. 

It's just that possibly, as a nation they don't base their entire cultural worth or success on their national rugby team.

Consider also, that in those 25 years, rugby fans were privileged enough to witness the feats of some of the most outstanding players to ever play the game. Christian Cullen, Tana Umaga, Andrew Mehrtens, Jonah Lomu,

Did these players fail? Depending on the criteria, absolutely. 

Were they successful players who achieved highly? Obviously. 

Steve Jobs is lauded as one of the pioneers and visionaries of personal computing and consumer electronics. But not only was he let go by the very company that he helped to found, he continued to make mistakes after his return and not all of Apple's products have been successful.

Richard Branson has had over a dozen major ventures that have gone bust under his watch, and yet is widely hailed as a success and a entrepernurial leader.

James Dyson's award winning bag less vacuum cleaner "took 5,127 prototypes and 15 years to get it right." Even after the success of that original product in 1993, Dyson has continued to refine and continuously improve his product.  

All of their failures were a part of the successes these three business leaders went on to create. As Dyson discusses in this article from The Guardian, in business "Failure can be an option". 

Sometimes though, we rewrite the rules, and despite failure being the absolute state of reality, and being aware of the process by which that point of failure was reached, we choose to define some things as "too big to fail".

We didn't allow the banks to fail. The results would have been catastrophic we were told. But five years on from that financial crisis, are we any better off? Have those institutes learnt from that failure? Did declaring them unable to fail cause them to change their methods?  Have our economies become more effective, balanced and useful as a result of not being allowed to fail?

I find it interesting that the World Bank now hosts a Fail Faire, to celebrate "innovation and risk-taking". 

Are we doing that in New Zealand. Politicians often call for innovation and risk takers, but do we allow for and explicitly let failure happen, so that we can innovate as a result. Do our public sector environments allow for risk-taking and the possibility of both success and failure? Do we have a public sector culture that lets the individuals within it learn from their mistakes.

 

Part Two of Tim's post goes online on Thursday.