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How to learn from failure

General   Cambridge OutlookLearning processes

When you’re editing a magazine, things go wrong. People who you’ve arranged to interview are suddenly unavailable; a contributor wildly overshoots the word limit; a spelling mistake isn’t spotted.

We experienced some of the above while we were working on the most recent issue of Cambridge Outlook. Some problems were out of our control (technical mishaps, for example); others were avoidable (a spelling mistake). Either way, my colleagues and I resolved them because that’s our job and we’re used to this kind of thing. You, as the reader, are none the wiser because you see only the finished magazine. And this is how it should be. So why am I pointing it out?

Outlook blog_MattS_reisizedIf there’s one thing we’ve learnt from this issue of Cambridge Outlook magazine, it’s the importance of bringing the right attitude to dealing with mistakes once they’ve been made. One of our interviewees, Matthew Syed (author and columnist), gave an insightful and entertaining speech at one of the Cambridge Schools Conferences on precisely this issue. He said that the most successful people and organisations are those who are willing to try, to fail and crucially, to learn and try again.

It sounds like common sense doesn’t it? But when I reflected on the speech (and read Matthew’s book), I realised that if I’m totally honest with myself, I view failure as something to be avoided rather than to be embraced and analysed. As an editor, I hate it when things go wrong. I work to fix the problem and move on without looking back. But maybe this isn’t the healthiest approach. I can see that it would be more productive to analyse the mistake and work out what I can learn from it. I’m going to try to do that more in the future.

The theme of our most recent issue of Cambridge Outlook is ‘learning how to learn’. A large part of that is reflection and how we understand ourselves, which is why Matthew makes an appearance in it. He isn’t an education professional: his areas of expertise are sports (he’s a former table tennis champion) and business. But it’s easy to apply his theories and findings to a school context. Exercises encouraging reflection on learning are already a normal part of modern teaching practice. In addition, professional development generally involves taking an objective view of teachers’ own practice. Writing about this reminds me of the story from my last blog about the teacher who had just taught a disastrous lesson – and went straight to her headteacher to talk it through. She wasn’t scared to do this because she knew that analysing what went wrong would result in a better lesson next time.

From the comments we gathered from teachers and students for Cambridge Outlook, reflection appears to have a positive influence on everyone. That is because young people who never analyse failure and are frightened of it will not push themselves beyond their comfort zone. However, those who don’t fear repercussions from failure will take risks, try new things and make mistakes. They will also learn and grow.

If you go through life thinking that errors should be avoided, covered up or forgotten, valuable learning opportunities get missed. So next time something goes wrong, instead of just fixing it and pretending it didn’t happen, I’m determined to turn and face it head-on.

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