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The Importance of Failing Well

2 Apr

The Importance of Failing Well


 Lance G King

Copy of this article is available at


A study of intellectually gifted students at a New Zealand high school has revealed one significant factor that distinguishes the highest achievers from the lowest achievers.


This factor was 100% significant – present in all the highest achievers and absent in all the lowest achievers.


This factor was their ability to fail well.



The Discovery:

From 2006-2008 as part of the requirements for my Masters degree, I was lucky enough to get to work with a wonderful group of GATE (Gifted and Talented Education)  students in my local high school. The group included students from all grades, from 13–18 years old, all bright, interesting and interested and a pleasure to work with. My investigation was into any links between their resilience and their academic performance.


Their resilience was gauged using a standard questionnaire approach focused on measuring both their Locus of Control (LOC) and Learned Helplessness (LH) orientations.


During the study all the students sat a major end-of-year examination in their school subjects. Based on their exam results their teachers then classified them into either the High Achiever, Achiever or Underachiever group of students.


My first discovery was that with these students there was no connection at all between their academic success and their resilience. Some helpless, external LOC kids were succeeding well and some resilient, internal LOC kids were bombing out.


My curiosity then led me to control for resilience and look further.


Pairs of students with identical resilience scores were then formed with one member of each pair being from the High Achiever student group and one from the Underachiever student group. The Achiever group of students was taken out of the analysis to help make the extremes more explicit. Five pairs of students were identified in this way making ten students in total. All ten students were then interviewed and their responses analysed.


Across all five pairs of students the practical strategies and internal characteristics of the High Achievers that were noticeably different from the Underachievers were:

  • involvement in extra-curricular activities
  • intense interests or passions
  • intellectual curiosity, academic engagement, a drive for understanding
  • gaining enjoyment from significant challenge
  • an active and clear goal focus
  • using active strategies to learn from failure
  • choosing to succeed.


But it was around the concept of failure that the greatest differences were found.


Failure in this study, was defined as not reaching a goal. Setting a goal, to win a game, to get a certain grade, outcome, performance and then not achieving that goal.


Their responses were very revealing.


While both the High Achievers and the Underachievers had all attributed failure to a lack of effort in their questionnaire data, a noticeable difference between them was elicited from their interview data. The High Achievers all reported actively applying long term effort-based strategies for academic achievement, whereas the Underachievers only reported applying effort in response to immediate deadlines.


Similarly with procrastination, all interviewees reported procrastination to be a problem for them but whereas the High Achievers were actively taking steps to get on top of the problem, the Underachievers were succumbing to it and resorting to last minute urgency to get them through.


The understanding and acceptance of failure was also strongly exhibited by the High Achievers in their interviews in contrast to the Underachievers. The Underachievers tended to deny that failure existed for them or took steps to avoid the possibility of failure in their lives. The one Underachiever who acknowledged failure in his life reported feeling completely overwhelmed by what he saw as the total failure of everything in his life and so rendered himself completely helpless.


The responses to failure reported across the five Underachievers were:

  • denying failure
  • using ability attributions to explain any setbacks
  • using no obvious strategies to reflect on and learn from mistakes
  • eliminating any subject or task in which failure was experienced
  • avoiding any situations where failure was possible
  • believing that every personal action resulted in failure and it was impossible to change
  • denying any successes
  • focusing on own short-comings
  • disengaging from the subject matter
  • being content with underachievement.


In comparison the responses reported by the five High Achievers in dealing with failure were:

  • using effort based attributions for any failure
  • focusing on learning from mistakes
  • being adaptable and achieving to the level of personal best
  • using hard work, talent and organisation to limit failure
  • being prepared to try new strategies and apply more effort
  • establishing absolute control in important areas
  • using precise goal focus and the application of organisation and effort to minimise failure
  • viewing failure as temporary and specific
  • taking responsibility for own actions in any failure situation.


Taking my lead from the information security industry I called one response to failure, failing well and the other response failing badly.


Reaction to failure:


Failing Well



Failing Badly

  • Acknowledging your failures,

taking responsibility for your own actions,

working out what you did wrong,

making changes,

and having another go


  • Blaming the school or the ‘system’
  • Blaming other people
  • Pretending you never have any failures
  • Adding drama to failures to avoid dealing with them
  • Avoiding any activity that could possibly result in failure
  • Dropping any activity after the first failure
  • Making the same mistake over and over
  • Universalising failure


My study seemed to suggest three conclusions:


1)    That maybe there was a direct relationship between failing well and academic success for all students not just gifted students


2)    That it seemed that there was only one way to fail well but there were many ways to fail badly


3)    That the idea of failing well could create a new model of success. Previously, for any endeavour (goal, plan, task) there were only ever two possible outcomes – success or failure, but with this model there were always three possible outcomes, success, failing well and failing badly, and two of those were positive.


Which led me in turn to the hypothesis that there was a causal relationship between failing well and academic success. That learning to fail well actually produced academic success.


Then I set out to see if I was right.



The Confirmation:

For the last five years I have worked with many thousands of students, their parents and teachers in 10 different countries testing out this model and the results appears to be consistent across the world:


– Students who fail well do better, much better, than students who fail badly.

– Teachers who fail well do better.

– Parents who fail well do better.


The key to it seems to be in the reprocessing of failure.

I suggest the following steps:

1)    Get over your emotional attachment to the word failure. Failure is just feedback. Feedback on what you aren’t doing right yet

2)    Second, admit every failure – immediately. Remember that the definition of failure is simply not reaching a goal

3)    Take responsibility for your own actions in not achieving that goal

4)    Make changes

5)    Have another go


Take a school situation as a simple example – imagine your child has just sat a Maths test with 10 questions and they have got 6 out of 10 correct.

What do they do with the 4 out of 10 they got wrong?

This is the crucial test.


Children that practice failing well will look at the six out of ten they got right and feel OK about that, they passed. And then they will look at the four out of ten they got wrong and ask why. Then they will analyse each question, work out exactly what they did wrong and make corrections and make sure they know how the correct answer was arrived at.

Then they will do a couple more problems similar to each one of the ones they got wrong until they are confident they have nailed them all. Then they will put the whole test behind them.


Children that practice failing badly will look at the six out of ten and feel OK about that, they passed. Then they will put the whole test behind them.


The secret seems to be in re-working any failure. Making sure you have another go, whatever the situation is, but making sure you change something first.


To help with this both teachers and parents need to reframe the word ‘failure’ and help children to understand that failure is a necessary part of growth and learning and there are two distinctly different ways to fail.


In the school situation the greatest challenge may well be to de-stigmatise the word failure and to create a classroom climate where children feel safe to fail. Only then will students be able to examine their own reactions to failure and practice building up the skills of failing well.


From now on every task, every goal, every performance has not two but three possible outcomes – Success, Failing Well and Failing Badly, and two of those are positive. By adopting this model you instantly increase the potential for success by one third.




Lance King (B. Tech, Dip. Ed(dist), M.Ed(hons)) is an internationally recognized author, teacher and workshop facilitator who, in the last 18 years, has worked with over 150,000 students worldwide. He is the creator of the Art of Learning programme taught in over 200 schools in ten countries and is a specialist in the direct teaching of ‘learning skills’. Within the IB he has been instrumental in the development of the Approaches to Learning programme in the new MYP and the subsequent Approaches to Teaching programmes. He is married with four children, lives in Raglan, New Zealand and divides his time between teaching and presenting workshops for teachers, parents and students around the world and writing –



Referenced academic paper on this topic available at:



Full thesis on this topic available at:


16 Top Strategies of the World’s best High School Students

22 May

1)    get time tabled – calendars, diaries, year planner

–         whole year with exam dates

–         semesters/terms with test dates

–         weekly classes

–         teacher availability outside class time

–         all assignment due dates

For you to be organised requires your school and your teachers to be organised and to be able to provide you with all this information at the beginning of the year. Keep asking until you get it


2)    get to classes – all classes – no excuses, you must keep up.


3)    take good notes in class:

a)     divide each page up vertically into two columns  1/3, 2/3, write all class notes only in the 2/3 column, leave the 1/3 column blank

b)    listen for ideas and write each new idea in a different colour


4)    every night – review (read over) all the notes taken that day and pull out the key points and write them in the 1/3 column, draw diagrams, pictures, flow charts to summarise the main ideas


5)    if you do miss any classes, make sure you photocopy someone else’s notes for that class as soon as possible and review them to make sure you understand


6)    if you have any questions, any things you don’t understand, think carefully about what exactly it is you don’t understand, formulate good questions, track down your teachers outside of class time and ask them


7)    if you still don’t understand something, go to the net, there are a huge number of websites for every school subject and often they will present the same information to you as you are doing in class but in a way that suits you better. Check out the “Study Tips for Students” page on my website – it has a big list of free and useful websites for students studying every subject


8)    always notice your own self-motivation strategies – how do you get yourself to do things that you know are going to be hard or difficult? What is your strategy for courage? Practice using those same strategies to get you to keep concentrating and keep focused in the classes you find difficult or boring. Remember success means doing things that other people find hard.


9)    organise your study area at home – desk, chair, light, instrumental music, water, fruit, take oxygenation breaks every 45 minutes when you are studying


10)           learn some memory techniques – for all the information that you just have to memorise, use the best memory techniques available – search them out in libraries, on the net


11)           doing assignments

a)     as soon as you get an assignment mark the due date in your diary (on your phone) and later transfer that date to your wall calendar

b)    in the lesson when you get told about the assignment, find out what is the word length, aim, objectives, deadline, marking criteria, and most importantly – can you submit a draft?


What are the stages of completing an assignment?

i)       Finding the information – research                              (25% of the time?)

ii)     Processing the information – reading                          (25%?)

iii)   Planning the piece of work – sequencing ideas         (5%?)

iv)   Doing the writing                                                               (40%?)

v)     Proof reading, making corrections and handing it in          (5%?)


c)     timeline every assignment – when will you need to have it  25% done by? 50% done? 75% done? Mark the dates on your calendar/year planner, aim always to finish all assignments with one day to spare


The solution to procrastination is organisation

d)    decide what mark are you aiming for A++ à C, Achieve à Excellence

e)     identify topic, question to be answered and decide on your point of view – this is what teachers (and examiners) are looking for – a thoughtful point of view

f)      research – get familiar with the library – where are the books, journals, reference section, videos, audio tapes for your subjects?

g)     find the best web sites for all your subjects


Remember – information is king – the first to find the best sources of information wins!

h)    reading – learn to skim read through textbooks, web pages just looking for key points, ideas that support your point of view

i)       make summaries of key points using mindmaps, THOrTmaps

j)       plan out a sequence of points to make which lead to your conclusion and find one quote to back up each point

k)     prepare a draft and (if possible) take it to your teacher for appraisal

l)        write the final copy

m)  proof read, make corrections, hand in.


12)           Each week make summaries of all the key points covered in each subject


13)           Once a month put all your weekly summaries together into a one month summary


14)           When you have a test or exam then just work through all your summaries and do some old exam questions on the topics


15)           If you get de-motivated or stressed out by schoolwork, focus back on your purpose – what is school for? Why is it useful to do well at school? What can you get out of it? Make both short and long term goals to support your achievement


16)           Use relaxation techniques to overcome exam nerves

Half way through the year, before mid-year exams – independent learning

6 Oct

Holidays are over, it’s as cold as it ever gets where you are and your children are back at school feeling like their holiday was too short, the’ve forgotten everything they learned last term and they are already behind in their work. Have I got it right? They probably had course work to do over the holiday break that they didn’t get finished, they’ve got mid-year or ‘mock’ exams coming up soon and they are expected to start thinking about their finals already!!

It is no wonder this is the season of maximum depression. What your children need most at this time is to ease as gently as possible back into the routines of homework and study with as much support from you as possible. If you have been to any of my presentations you will know that I am not a fan of parents pressuring children but I am a fan of good organisation. Remember that the solution to depression is action. What can they do to get on top of things, what actions can they take – with your help?

Strategies for the (slightly) de-motivated child


1) Focus on purpose – why are you at school?

This is the most critical question and although the answers may be obvious to you if you haven’t talked through this question with your son or daughter because it is just too obvious then do so – you might be surprised. And don’t accept any glib answers. You need to explore:

–          how is getting an education an advantage?

–          what is the nature of modern society – the information revolution, the internet?

–          what kind of jobs are going to be the most sought after in the future?

–          role models of success – using their brain or their body most?

–          the building block nature of education – what leads to what?

In the end I think it comes down to having choices, in that a good education will give you more choices as an adult than a poor education will. And more choices are worth having. Real poverty can be easily defined as having no choices.

2) Look at goals – what do you want to achieve by the end of the school year?

In all areas – sports, social, cultural, leisure as well as academic. Having helped your child to formulate some goals get them to write them down!! I like to use the following framework for writing goals:

Positive language – what you will do rather than what you won’t do

Outcome focused – what will it be like when it is finished?

Specific – clear, precise – how much, how high, how far…?

I-based – in your control rather than depending on what anyone else must do

Timed – set a time for completion of the goal and any lead-up stages

Incentive – what is the incentive, the purpose, what will be the benefit of achievement?

Visualise – actively and regularly visualise achieving the goal

Evaluate – build in a time frame for evaluation of progress toward the goal

3) Assess present progress

Contact key teachers at school and find out how your child is actually doing. Do not rely on their reporting. As we discovered half way through Year 10 with one of our sons, he was actually doing much worse than he had led us to believe. If you get in a similar position, try and find a champion for your child at school – someone who will unobtrusively keep an eye on his or her progress. We were able to enlist the support of the Year 10 Dean at my son’s school who was able to institute a monthly written feedback check from each teacher from then on.

4) Install review procedures

Every night your child needs to be reading over what s/he has done at school that day, as well as doing homework. It sounds like a lot but it can be as simple as them talking you through each class they had that day. Create a system and stick to it! This procedure made a big difference to my son’s attitude, performance and enjoyment of school.

5) Be prepared to change

One thing that became apparent to us was that our son had one subject (French) that he was grossly under-performing in and in discussion with him it was obvious that this was effecting his performance across his whole school day. We discussed this with his dean (and with him) and we decided to pull him out of his French class (this was in the middle of his school year) and get him into a Drama class instead. The effect was remarkable, his Drama teacher reported to us that he walked straight into Drama as if he had been in the class all year, moved straight into a lead role in a production they were engaged in and in the end of year exams obtained his highest mark – even though he only attended half the year. More importantly his attitude towards his school day rose and he became more positive and more focused overall. The most important thing my wife and I learnt from that experience was the importance of being prepared to change. If the present regime isn’t working – producing the academic results you and your children want – do something differently! As is often said “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you always got”

6) Buy resources

As they get closer to exam times, make sure your children have the subject review notes they need for the exams, copies of old exam papers, internet access to subject review sites etc.

7) Identify learning gaps and get remedial tutoring

Even with all the help that we were able to organise our son was still just scraping by we decided that he could do with help in both Maths and Science. During the last part of the first holiday break of the year we organised for the son of a friend (who had finished school the previous year) to come twice a week and spend two hours each time with our son working through the revision guides he had used the previous year. Straight away they identified clear gaps in understanding and began remedial work. The big advantages with using an aquaintance of a similar age were good role modelling, same language structures, familiarity with each other and a comfortable environment. Real progress then began to be made and we continued this system right through the year.

8) Realise that making significant changes to a child’s academic performance is a long slow process and you can’t do it for them.


One of the biggest difficulties I have had with my children over the years is probably helping them to become independent learners. My wife says it is just because I am such a ‘control freak’ and I think that has some validity but I think that many people (especially fathers) face this problem. If we don’t have that much contact with our children on a day to day basis because of our working hours maybe when we do connect we try to help them too much with motivators, rules, systems and strategies of organisation which we know would help them succeed if they implemented them in our absence. The problem being that if we end up being the one that is providing the motivation, the drive, the purpose, the strategies and also we are the one that is getting them started each night in their study and and checking that they finish everything they need to, then they don’t tend to learn how to do it for themselves. Sometimes learning how to learn, independently, is a process best learnt by first experiencing some failure. Somethimes they have to fail first in order to to learn to succeed.



A while ago I came across this fascinating article in the Times Higher Education Supplement which I think highlights the need to help all children to develop process focused learning strategies and the habits skills and techniques of independent learners:

Tutors in Despair at Illiterate Freshers

Jessica Shepherd

THES: 09 February 2006

Undergraduates are entering university less numerate, literate and knowledgeable than ever before, according to the most comprehensive study undertaken of how university admissions staff view the latest intakes of students.

Admissions tutors bemoaned new students’ lack of independent thought, “fear of numbers” and expectations to be “told the answers” in a survey of staff from 16 Oxbridge, Russell Group and post-1992 institutions.

The report, leaked to The Times Higher, reveals that lecturers are forced to postpone courses to the second year of undergraduate degrees to make time for remedial teaching and to develop students’ independent learning skills.

Many of the 250 university staff questioned lamented an “overemphasis” on exam success and league tables in the education system for 14 to 19-year-olds, which they say leads to students starting university suffering from “assessment burnout” and expecting to be spoon-fed.

New students, they say, increasingly struggle to cope with the independent and self-directed style of learning expected by higher education tutors.

They say that students are increasingly weak at reading critically, constructing arguments and communicating ideas in writing and have poor grammar skills compared with undergraduates of ten years ago.

Lecturers say that A levels often either cover too much of a subject in too little detail or focus on certain topics and fail to provide adequate knowledge of core ideas.

Geoff Hayward, lecturer in Oxford University’s educational studies department, which carried out the survey with the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, said: “Negative comments are not indicative of higher education tutors and admissions staff whingeing or harking back to some golden age, but represent genuine concerns about young people and their capacity to benefit from higher education.”

He said the reduced “teachability” of new undergraduates placed the efficiency of the UK higher education sector at risk.

David Law, chair of the Admissions Practitioners’ Group of the Academic Registrars’ Council and academic registrar at Warwick University, said the report confirmed the concerns often aired by admissions staff.

He said: “We are concerned about the interface between pre-university education and undergraduate study. We are all seeing the need to be very careful with our admissions. Universities also need to review their curricula to adapt their courses to new students, though.”


So what are the skills of independent learning???

Along with all the ‘learning to learn’ skills that I am always talking about the most important skill it seems to me is only learned by experiencing failure. It could be called learning to fail but is usually referred to as Resilience.

Studies in Europe, Asia and the USA have shown that resilient students consistently share the following traits:

1)      a focus on learning goals rather than performance goals – resilient students are learning at school to improve their knowledge base rather than to get “A” passes or “Excellence” grades

2)      challenge seeking rather than challenge avoiding

3)      a belief that effort is more important than ability

4)      adaptive behaviours in the face of failure – seek out the problems with their process in order to learn from their mistakes, rather than giving up

5)      motivation more towards mastering subjects for their own sake rather than towards gaining approval or avoiding disapproval

6)      an internal ‘locus of control’ – believe that by their own actions they can significantly influence their own life

7)      an optimistic view of their own future

8)      a belief in the flexibility or malleability of their intelligence which contrasts with the least resilient students who believe their intelligence is more fixed, unalterable.

But the most significant finding, I think, is that we all gain these traits only through our experience of failure. Which does not mean that everyone who fails automatically goes on to become successful but research does seem to show that a lack of failure does not prepare anyone well for handling adversity. Only by experiencing failure, reflecting on it, focusing on the process, deciding on changes to implement and then actually implementing those changes do we learn from our mistakes and move on and grow as individuals.

Think of the worst thing that has ever happened to you?

Painful even to recall isn’t it?

But what happened as a result of that occurrence? How are you different because of it? Do you think you are stronger as a result? Of course you may wish with all your heart that the bad thing never happened but it did and you have learned from it and moved on. In a similar situation in the future you may operate differently or you may now know how to help someone else who is going through similar difficulties.

So what can we, as parents, do for our children?

1)      help them to see the relevance in the world and the possible usefulness in their future of all the subjects they are studying

2)      give them challenging experiences – take them out of their comfort zone occasionally

3)      reward them for effort rather than outcome

4)      if they have difficulty understanding or learning something new, help them to focus on the process – the strategies they are using – as the best source of improvement

5)      give them biographies to read of people who have succeeded by overcoming great adversity – make sure that they expect to have many failures before they succeed

6)      help them to see failures as mistakes they can learn from

7)      encourage them to 100% effort in some aspect (not every aspect) of their lives, to achieve mastery as a goal in itself

8)      find out the areas of their life where they feel they have no control and in stages allow them to gain more control of their life by demonstrating their ability to make considered decisions and fully accept the consequences

9)      help them to develop an optimistic view of their own future

10)   provide them with examples and evidence supporting the ideas that intelligence is flexible, malleable, able to be developed, (Howard Gardner’ s Multiple Intelligence’s model is very robust and proves this point very well)

and lastly, and most importantly for an increasing number of children

11)   focus less on how your child feels and more on what your child does.

In other words avoid empty attempts to bolster your child’s self esteem and focus instead on helping your child to take action to change how they feel. We are all probably victims of the ‘self-esteem’ movement of the 70’s and we have learned to emphasize how a child feels – happy or sad, frustrated, challenged – at the expense of what the child does – mastery, persistence, overcoming frustration and boredom and handling challenge. Unfortunately by focusing on directly changing negative feelings into positive ones we are not teaching our children how to handle adversity and ultimately we are producing more helpless, anxious and depressed children.

As Martin P Seligman talks about in his book “The Optimistic Child” (recommended reading) with reference to the American education system –

“The self esteem movement has helped lead to the abolition of tracking,

lest those on lower tracks suffer damaged self-esteem; to the abandonment

of IQ testing, lest those who score low feel low self-esteem; to massive grade

inflation, lest those who earn D’s feel bad; to teaching aimed at the very

bottom of the class, to spare the feelings of the kids slower to learn (now that

they are untracked); to competition becoming a dirty word; to the demise of

rote memorization of epic material; and to less plain old hard work.”


“Feelings of self-esteem in particular and happiness in general, develop as

side effects – of mastering challenges, working successfully, overcoming

frustration and boredom, and winning. The feeling of self-esteem is a by-product

of doing well. Once a child’s self-esteem is in place, it kindles further success.

Tasks flow more seamlessly, troubles bounce off, and other children seem more

receptive. There is no question that feeling high self-esteem is a delightful state

to be in, but trying to achieve the feeling side of self-esteem directly, before

achieving good commerce with the world, confuses profoundly the means and

the end.”

I welcome your comments.

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