Taking Children To The Threshold Of Failure

When children are given work that is ‘too easy’ then they soon get restless and revolt.

Give them work that is more than they can cope with and they get downhearted and dejected.

As every teacher knows, pitching the work at the ‘right’ level is a constant editing process that is extremely difficult to manage. You want to get right all of the time but you just won’t.

The magic spot is to take children to their threshold of failure and encounter ‘troublesome knowledge’ beyond their comfort zone.

Some call this the ‘zone of proximal development’ and refers to the difference between what a learner can do without help and what he or she can achieve with guidance and encouragement from a skilled partner.

It also refers to allowing children to fail.

But failure has to be carefully managed so that children don’t lose face. It has to be seen as something inevitable and an integral part of self-development.

Not managed sensitively and failure will impede learning big time because it threatens our sense of self and we can soon tune out.

The threshold of failure is the zone where children learn most about the subject under study but they also learn plenty about themselves. If they can’t do something then do they have the mental strength to bounce back and try again?

Most of the time we don’t just solve something straight away – it takes more than one crack at it. Children are going to fail miserably if they think that they will always be able to do whatever task is put in front of them. There are micro failures and macro failures.

Failure is not to be feared because it’s going to happen and so children have to be taught that failure has flexible boundaries and not something that is fixed.

Failure is temporary but that temporariness might be days, weeks or even months. Some concepts and problems need plenty of time to work through.

When children reach the threshold of failure then they have a choice – they give up or they explore what is not working and why and understanding that getting something ‘wrong’ is a stepping stone across the river. They need to know that there are degrees of failure and that it isn’t one-size-fits all.

No one should set out to fail but there needs to be an acceptance that it will happen some of the time. Failure should be embraced for its potential to promote creativity and innovation.


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