Help your child - allow them to fail

Posted on: 01 Jun 2017
Posted by: Jane Grubb

Jane Grubb, Head of Bedales Prep School, discusses the importance in learning from failure and argues that problems are part of life which can be overcome – but only if young people are first allowed to fail.

In February, the poet and former Children’s Laureate Michael Rosen wrote to The Guardian, questioning the amount of homework now given to young people, and identifying a problem in that the children with the parents best able to help them surely have an advantage. However, on having been the parent of school-age children, he also says: “I find myself wondering if the better I am at a subject, the worse teacher I become…”.

Herein lies a crucial educational tension. The Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI) inspection framework, like its state sector counterpart, features requirements of ‘Teaching, learning and assessment’ on the one hand, and ‘Personal development, behaviour and welfare on the other’. Why a tension? Because, I would argue, the demands of assessment of academic achievement and personal development can place value on contradictory things, with implications not only for young people themselves, but also for parents and teachers.

In the new ISI inspection framework there is a beefed-up emphasis on the outcomes for pupils and particularly their personal development – self-knowledge, self-esteem, resilience and taking responsibility for one’s success and personal improvement all feature strongly. This is laudable – the codification of the attributes we know to be associated with strong mental health and all round wellbeing (we are all now aware of Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset – the ‘tough love’ approach that values effort and honest appraisal over pure attainment). However, it also requires parents and teachers to allow pupils to fail, to not know, and consequently to build vital problem solving and self-evaluative skills.

As both a teacher and a parent, homework with my own children provoked complex and sometimes conflicting feelings. I can well remember those evenings with my child frustrated and stuck on their maths homework. I would sit down with them and go over the first few questions to see if this might spark a memory of the method needed, of doing a few more ‘together’ and then perhaps correcting the next attempt. Finally, I would wrap up the rest myself so that we might get some sort of family time. The completed homework is handed in, and my child can now navigate the week with one less thing to worry about and a good grade in their maths book. Job done, but what a missed opportunity!

Let’s rewind and try again. My child is sitting with tears in their eyes, unable to do their homework. I encourage them to have a go and to keep trying, and then keep well away. Frustration mounts, and I suggest they try the one that looks the easiest to start with and, again, walk away. Still no joy, and they are now past their best. I praise them for having tried hard, and ask them how they might get the advice they need to do their homework. My child emails their teacher explaining that they are stuck, and haven’t yet understood the maths method. The next morning they find the teacher, and discuss how to move forward.

Although in the first scenario the attainment grade for my child as far as the school is concerned would be higher, in the second the life skills learnt and personal development outcomes are immeasurably greater. Importantly, in the latter scenario the teacher is key. He or she must be open to requests for further teaching and support, and also praise the initiative and drive of pupils prepared to ask for more help. They must not be blinded by scores and grades as the measure of real success.

For some teachers and schools, greater parental interest in their children’s homework would be very welcome. However, although well-intentioned, some parental intervention in homework can be to the cost of the child’s wider development. Teachers’ suspicions are aroused when homework is markedly better that that they see from the same child in class. When challenged, parents will often deny their part in it, and so the honesty and openness required for meaningful discussion of pupil progress between home and school is gradually eroded.

So, what is to be done? I am greatly in favour of all ‘homework’ being done within school hours, thus ensuring that it is done independently, and that the teachers who set the work are on hand to provide any necessary support and further teaching. In turn, this would allow children to have evenings for themselves, and for family. In the independent sector the school day is typically longer than in the state schools, making this a more obviously realistic proposition. However, we also know that policy makers are keen on the idea of a longer school day, so it should not be considered impossible.

Independent work must be a positive extension of learning, and should build pupils’ organisational skills, initiative and the ownership of their learning and success. In turn, this requires a shared expectation that children will sometimes find their studies difficult, and that difficulty is fine – indeed, without it, education risks losing the very heart of its purpose. Problems are part of life, and can be overcome – but only if young people are first allowed to fail.

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About Jane Grubb

Jane Grubb is Head of Bedales Prep School, Dunhurst.