Thursday 13 March 2014

Disappointing Children

Life, as Rick Gekoski observes in his 1998 book, Staying Up, is about winning and losing. Education is preparation for both of these outcomes – but the truth is that schools spend much more time on one than the other. In recent times, some schools have gained headlines by having weeks in which pupils were invited to experience ‘failure’ to see how they coped with it and thereby to build up resilience.

But there are two kinds of failure. There’s the kind which is half-expected, the result of an adventurous have-a-go attitude: for such people, who are constantly stretching themselves, there can be a freedom to try for more than they think they can manage. The consequence of failure? A shrug, a determination to learn from it, and a sense that life goes on.

The other kind comes when failure is unexpected. And this is the point – failure week produces the first kind of failure – expected, almost synthetic, and therefore not crushing. Resilience is really the capacity to withstand the disappointment that we didn’t see coming. It’s the unexpected ‘D’ grade, the loss to a team that was expected to be weaker than our team, the sudden freeze in the middle of a musical performance following an error so unfamiliar that it momentarily swamps us.

It’s this kind of disappointment – not getting what we want, when it makes us ache with disappointment – that is an essential part of education. If we don’t experience this kind of disappointment in our early lives, we risk becoming achievement junkies whose approach is therefore only to take on the achievable. I wonder if this is what Mrs Gove was hinting at this week when she described private school pupils as ‘cossetted’.

A lot of ink has been spent pointing out the correlation between those who were unsuccessful at school and their success at business. But what if the cause of the success at business was the lack of it at school? What if the ability to bear repeated disappointment – to score below the pass mark in a French vocab test, to concede 5 goals, or 50 points, in every week’s match – was the ideal preparation for repeated refusals on the part of investors to back an entrepreneur’s work? What if Richard Branson and Jamie Oliver were taught that continuing to try against unbearable odds (and being able to sleep at night at the same time) was the quality that would enable them to survive at school. What if the perseverance that the less able learned at school turned out to be more important than the intellectual tricks performed by the scholars?

In most schools the irresistible force that is stopping schools from being able to set up experiences that disappoint children can be supportive parents. The battle our sector hasn’t yet begun to win is to teach parents that for children to face really tough battles in their education is a key part of the education.

Might the disappointing children be the children who haven’t yet been disappointed. Schools ought to make it their business to give children the experience of being disappointed more often – as well as helping them through it, of course. This might – in our consumerist age – feel like we are setting the bar lower: shouldn’t we be trying to satisfy every customer? In some senses it is the parent whose child is successful in becoming a prefect, in scoring A* grades, passing music exams, and in the first team, who should be knocking on the Head’s door, not the parent whose child isn’t.

So, in our School Assembly this week, I challenged pupils to see disappointments as a chance to learn life’s most valuable lessons. And I challenged them to make the school a sufficiently secure place that we can all talk about failures and disappointments, and learn from each others’ as well as our own. That's interdependence for you.


  1. This came in by email: 'Could not agree is the disappointments, hardships faced, tragedies borne and realisation that there are so many other folk in the world so much worse off that puts into perspective where we all fit in in the greater scheme of things. Experiencing disappointment, defeat and even failure makes success, achievement and progress all the more sweet when it comes our way'. David Waters

  2. I much enjoyed your dissertation on disappointment. It ranks up there with the excellent observation that there is insufficient boredom in the lives of younger children nowadays. Another angle on the disappointment theme is the direct linkage to risk, which you allude to. Risk sits at the heart of the commercial world, is an essential part of leadership and pre-requisite of success, and is fundamental to most worthwhile endeavour. In order to create opportunities to be disappointed, we must strive to create an appropriate appetite for risk and teach how to manage it. The learning process will inevitably involve a healthy dose of the disappointment that you sensibly advocate.
    PS Love the fish!