by Dr Ray Swann

About failure

In his work, Tony Wagner (Co-Director of the Change Leadership Group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education) talks about how schools must provide the right contexts for the development of new skills and entrepreneurial thinking. One of Wagner’s central challenges relates to how schools deal with the notion of failure. As Wagner points out, it’s only through receiving feedback that we can start to understand whether or not we are progressing or seeing any changes. Few (if any) innovations occur without repeated failure.

So, how do we enable boys to fail (and fail ‘well’ or ‘safely’) and learn at school? Part of the answer lies in resilience. Many schools integrate the PROSPER model into their curriculum. The acronym stands for Positivity, Relationships, Outcomes, Strengths, Purpose, Engagement and Resilience. This is key to working with failure.

The question then becomes: can you teach resilience – and if so, how? According to McGrath and Noble (2011), you can. In fact, there are discrete resilience skills that can be taught to boys. These are:

  • Optimistic thinking (teaching boys about the value of hope)
  • Helpful thinking (teaching boys that how they think affects how they feel)
  • Adaptive distancing (teaching boys about detaching from negative influences

A new research centre at Colombia University, Columbia University’s Teachers College, has been given the task of studying the purpose of failure in education. According to an article in The Atlantic, one study found that students’ science results improved once the students had learned about the ‘personal and intellectual struggles’ of a number of famous scientists like Einstein and Marie Curie.

The Centre is already finding that for failure (through feedback) to be useful, we need time to look at what happened and ‘went wrong.’

By giving boys time for reflection and providing feedback, we can improve boys’ resilience, and they will continue to develop the capacity to learn in different ways, including learning through failure.



McGrath, H. and Noble, T. (2011). BOUNCE BACK! A Wellbeing & Resilience Program. Lower Primary K–2; Middle Primary: Yrs 3–4; Upper Primary/Junior Secondary: Yrs 5–8. Melbourne: Pearson Education.


 Brought to you by Brighton Grammar School

Dr Ray Swann is Deputy Headmaster/Head of Crowther at Brighton Grammar School, an all-boys school in Melbourne. His professional background includes consulting, research, lecturing and coaching. This article is about


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