Giving pupils permission to fail

Julie Read

Julie Read has been at both ends of the system; helping students creating an art portfolio for success in applying to art college, as well as interviewing applicants for entry to Edinburgh College of Art for nine years. She also led the student recruitment activity at Edinburgh College of Art (2006 – 9) which involved advising many prospective students and their parents about applying to art college. Portfolio Oomph has been developed to help with art college applications, and is jam packed full of advice and information which is constantly being updated and expanded.

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Originally published on 4th February 2016 Originally published on 4th February 2016 To celebrate the 2015/16 school year, we're republishing the most popular article of each month. Today: February's top read. We'd love to know what you think, and if you've used these ideas yourself in the classroom, let us know in the comments section!

November saw the exhibition ‘Permission to Fail: Sketchbooks of Graphic Designers, Illustrators, and Photographers’ at The School of Design Gallery at Mount Ida College, Massachusetts. When we see exhibitions of art it's always a showcase of final, finished pieces, the highlights of an artist's body of work over a number of months or indeed years. This exhibition is interesting in that it is showing all the 'failures', the disasters, the unsuccessful pieces that went into making those final pieces.

"Successful, creative endeavours are achieved by trial and error."

You might wonder why an artist would want to show this. All art works have value, some more than others, but it's how we respond to these failures that is key. Society's response to the suggestion of failure needs attention as very often failure leads to success and is an important element of this journey.

My reason to latching on to this story is that this subject lies at the very core of an Art and Design education - in the design and the creative process. As artists and designers, we don't think of an idea and then produce a masterpiece (or at least I don't know anyone who does!). Successful, creative endeavours are achieved by trial and error, with a good dose of reflection. Miss out the reflection and it becomes a totally haphazard exercise that will less than likely result in satisfactory designs / artworks. Miss out the experimentation, and new, amazing wonders won't be discovered. By always doing the same thing, the same results of often ensue, therefore never achieving anything revolutionary or even challenging.

When a school student is putting together a portfolio for Art college, the whole creative process needs to be evident. The colleges don't want to see just a collection of masterpieces. They want to see your ideas, your explorations of subject and materials, the pieces that went 'wrong' but they also want to see what decisions you made as a result of these. So, as mentioned above, the reflection that then led you to do something differently based on these 'disasters' is critical. Much of this risk-taking stage can be done in a sketchbook, which is why sketchbooks are essential, as they are not simply a presentation of successful works. The value that we place on finished pieces usually far outweighs the value that we place on early ideas, sketches, tests. However, these early pieces might really be the crucial turning point in the creative journey that takes us to the biggest pinnacle of one's portfolio or career.

There is increasing pressure on young people to perform (in the form of SATS) in our 'testing' culture. In Scotland there are new tests, destined for 2017, to be taken by pupils in Primaries one, four and seven, as well as those in their third year of secondary school. It is our responsibility as adults and teachers to ensure that young people are equipped with the skills to deal with failure - if we have to term it that way. Not everyone is going to perform well in every subject and it's using this failure to make the correct decisions going forward for that individual.

So let's encourage failure, learn to label it differently. Let's talk to our children about things failing and what we've learnt in the process, as that will allow us to do it differently next time to make it better. We might fail again but each time we do so we are getting closer to success and just think of all that precious learning we've done along the way.

We're also creating resilient, problem solving individuals who value their own reflection and perceptions which in itself is confidence boosting. It's no coincidence that when James Dyson created the most revolutionary vacuum cleaner ever, it had taken 5,127 prototypes and 15 years to get it right! As inventor and businessman Thomas Edison famously said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Do you encourage freedom of failure in your classroom? Share your experiences below!

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