Don’t leave failure in the shadows – it can light your way to success

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Everybody loves a good success story. We all want to hear about that lightbulb moment. None of us wants to hear what didn’t work, unless, of course, it’s made piquant with a good dollop of schadenfreude.

It’s especially true in education, where there is a constant search for silver bullets – the most successful teaching methods, the best interventions and leaders and, at a policy level, the most successful countries. Finland, Singapore, Vietnam – which one is it now?

We have a never-ending desire to emulate, to lift and shift with no adaptations or concern for context. The problem is, as Dylan Wiliam, emeritus professor at the UCL Institute of Education, has famously pointed out, everything works somewhere and nothing works everywhere.

Undeterred, though, we battle on valiantly, plucking out those wins from the huge pile of losses. But that obsession with success needs to go, argues Nick Rose. We will learn more and advance further if we examine the failures and why they occurred, rather than performing a superficial sweep of successes, which are often as much about luck as judgement anyway.

We would do well to heed the words of the man who gave us the term “cargo-cult science” to describe how we try to imitate things without first understanding them – noted physicist and bongo-player Richard Feynman. “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.” His plea was one for integrity in science, but it’s one that can just as easily apply to anything.

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