PE Sport and Physical Activity in Scotland and beyond

Fear of Failure

Posted by drilly on February 3, 2008

Holt.jpgI have recently been reading John Holt How children Fail and would recommend it as an essential read. The book was first published in the sixties but many of Holt’s central messages and thoughts are just as relevant today. Holt suggests that fear of failure, fear of humiliation, fear of disapproval severely affects a child’s capacity for real learning.  Rewards such as grades and gold stars reinforce children’s fears of failing exams and receiving disapproval from the adults in their lives.  Rather than learning the actual content of the lessons, children learn how to avoid embarrassment.  This atmosphere of fear not only stifles a love of learning and suppresses curiosity, but it also makes children afraid of taking chances and risks which may be necessary for true learning. This fear drives children to develop various strategies such as mumbling, acting like they don’t understand or acting overly enthusiastic so they won’t be called upon to answer to avoid being humiliated in front of their peers.

This central message hit me with a bang this week when a conversation with my 5 year old daughter about her school revealed that she already has a marked fear of failing. We were chatting about what she enjoyed at school. This obviously moved to what she didn’t like and why. During this part of our chat she burst in to tears and got very upset. The cause of her distress; getting things wrong. In her mind this was terrible “it was bad to make mistakes”. This was quite upsetting for me as my daughter seems to be doing reasonably well at school, she really seems to enjoy her reading and learning new words, she also seems to be making good progress with her numeracy skills as well and she is a very sociable child. However how much of her progress is motivated by the fear of getting it wrong rather than the joy of learning. I spent the rest of the conversation reassuring her that it is perfectly acceptable to get things wrong as we learn from making mistakes. I also suggested that people who make mistakes are very brave as they are trying to do something that is new and they haven’t mastered yet.

It set me to thinking have I been responsible for developing this fear in my daughter. I hope not I have always tried to be as supportive and non judgemental with her as possible but I may have done it subconsciously. This then set me thinking if I am unaware of it how often have I reinforced this message within my own teaching? I truly hope I have not, but one thing is for sure I am now more aware of the whole issue and the impact it can have on learning and is something I will consider as part of my future teaching.

3 Responses to “Fear of Failure”

  1. Great book – it definitely rings true to me, based on my teaching experience and my schoolboy memories.

    It horrifies me that there seems to be a trend towards class league tables and increased competition in classes. The idea seems to be that it is good for boys, but I can’t help but think that it is plunging many pupils into misery.

  2. drilly said

    I don’t necessarily think competition is a bad thing if it is used in the correct manner and the correct context my previous post sums up my thoughts on this. But I do have to agree that competition handled in the wrong way is an incredibly destructive and negative force.

  3. Kevin Farmer said

    You’ve experienced what a lot of Teacher/parents have. The most important thing is the realisation and the fact that everyone learns from it. I will read the book. As regards competition, well, that’s a real thorn. I, in my imperfect wisdom, believe that competition is foisted upon children too quickly. We as teachers have an obligation to teach and nurture, to reduce the “fear of failure” regardless of the “ayeways” factor. We should be trying to build an ethos where all children are willing to at least participate or “have a go” without feeling as though they are about to let someone down.
    Competition is important but the timing of its introduction is crucial and skill levels need to match.

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