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October 5, 2014
by Pete Jones

The Fear of Failure: Part Two.

Following my previous blogpost concerning self-esteem and the importance of early intervention to allow students to develop ‘success-seeking behaviour’, this post now looks in more detail at what students do to protect their self-esteem. I just thought I’d sum up the previous blog post with Dan Brinton’s tweet about what the post meant to him. This was exactly the point I was trying to make.

dan tweet

As I mentioned yesterday, “students who think highly of themselves tend to embrace challenging tasks that ultimately improve their skills and enhance their chances of success in future activities and tasks.” The importance of self-esteem to underpin a growth mindset cannot be underestimated.  The students who think highly of themselves tend to invest more effort and persistence in tasks. It’s a fundamental truth. Think of those students with poor self-esteem, they often struggle to embrace challenges and lack the will to keep going in the face of difficulty. As I mentioned previously, self-esteem is exceptionally important to young people. Protecting what they have can have very negative consequences as Andrew Martin points out in detail in his excellent book (plug number 2).

So what do students do to protect their self-esteem due to the fear of failure? These are the signs. I have shared this with my Year 11 GCSE students. They recognised many of the symptoms within themselves, and it did make them think about changing these behaviours, so I recommend you do the same.

 Attributes of students who fear failure.

  1. Self-handicapping.obsatcleStudents will put obstacles in the path of success and use it as an excuse for performing badly. This means that they can blame the obstacle, and not their own competence, thus preserving their self-esteem. Think of the kids who went out partying rather than revising, or those who procrastinate, finding a myriad of other ‘highly important’ things they had to do rather than get down to some serious studying. Social media has a big part to play here too. For some students, they may even turn to drugs and alcohol as a way of handicapping their achievement expectations. So when the teacher, parents or peer asks why they did so badly, they have a legitimate excuse, which protects their competence and thus, crazily, their self esteem can remain intact.
  2. Defensive Pessimism. danger-expectationsStudents set out unrealistically low expectations of themselves to reduce the likelihood of failure. This can also manifest itself as a reluctance to be challenged. Again, this is something we often see, especially higher up the school. Students look to see what the minimum is to get on their course, be happy with this and make this their new target. Then if they achieve their grade, they are happy that they got what they set out to achieve, despite it being well below their expected grades, just to protect their self-esteem.
  3. Defensive Optimism.nStudents can set out expectations which are way too high; targets which no matter how hard they work, will be impossible to reach. This means that when they fail, they fail with dignity, ensuring that their self-esteem remains intact.
  4. Overstriving (Perfectionism). perfectionismThis is where students will do everything in their power to succeed, often at the cost of other things like their health and relationships. This may sound not too bad as at least they are making a positive effort. But what happens if they do fail, despite their extraordinary efforts? Failure can have a really negative impact and students begin to resent their education. Making an exceptional effort just to protect their self-esteem can have dire consequences.
  5. Success avoidance. hThink of the nail protruding from a piece of wood. The last thing you want to do is stand out from your peers because you’ve done really well. They will want to hammer you for being too clever or working too hard. This also leads to pressure next time. It’s much easier, if your self-esteem is inextricably linked to your friendships (which it so often is) to avoid success at all costs and just blend in with being average.
  6. Learned Helplessness.  Now here is the killer. This is where students just give up. Those students who have repeatedly experienced poor performance and failure protect what self-esteem they have left by just saying ‘I can’t do it’. Why try if you know you can’t do it? This is the ultimate self-defeating behaviour.

All of these behaviours can lead to chronic underachievement, which relates to the slide from our growth mindset launch below.


Share this with your teachers, more importantly, share this with your students. We all have to recognise we weren’t born this way.  It’s our historical experiences and subsequent expectations which mould us into the learners we become.

This brings me back to the first post. These behaviours are rife in many if not almost all schools. We have to make sure our students keep achieving. We cannot let them experience failure and just leave the rails to run out. It’s too important. The consequences of poor self-esteem and the inability to develop ‘success-seeking’ behaviour is dire.

We must encourage our students to expand their view of success to include the process gains- improvement, personal bests, skill development, new understanding, not just the hard data. We must also ensure that we intervene, support and rebuild confidence when needed.

The more I think about this, the more I come back to Dan’s tweet.  “It’s obvious isn’t it? Pour absolutely everything into arresting the first negative deviation from the flight path. Everything.”

Thanks Dan. Thanks Marc for introducing me to this book too. Highly recommended.

October 4, 2014
by Pete Jones

The Fear of Failure: Part one.

I have recently read this excellent book on recommendation of Marc Smith. I was a few pages in when I realised just how powerful this book was going to be on my thinking and I heartily recommend you buy it. It’s a comprehensive discourse on how to support a growth mindset and what stops us from becoming successful- the fear of failure.


Its election time in Jersey. As a states employee, I’m not allowed to comment on the current and historical state of play of our educational system, but lets just say it could be seen as devisive as this article about the minister for Education, Sport and Culture comments in his outgoing message to the States as he hangs up his political cap.

My children go to their local primary school. My eldest daughter is in Year 6. Many of her friends will not be going on to their local secondary school, but my daughter, who has the highest CAT score in her class really wants to come to my school (her local comprehensive). I often discuss ideas with her and she gets excited. She hears me speaking with as much energy and enthusiasm as I always do. I’m an edu-geek. She knows it. It’s accepted, a little embarrassing for her, but she sees the school we are and what we want to be in the future, and she wants to be a part of it. Sadly, many of her good friends at primary are not going to join her. They will be going to one of the semi-private, selective schools or one of the faith schools on the island. There has been some pressure by her friends to join the elite as she is ‘so clever’. Here is where the divisiveness begins. Then, at 14, students who get a particular CAT score are again allowed to move to a selective state school. Many do. Those who are left in the state schools, left without their friends and peers do their very best to succeed and us as teachers do everything we can do ensure that these students don’t feel like failures, but it is hard at times. It could be gathered that through this process, they have been told twice that they are not good enough or not wealthy enough to be successful.  The impact on some student’s self-esteem can be demoralising to say the least.

So, back to the purpose of this blogpost. Dealing with the fear of failure.

Firstly, what do you think is the best predictor for next weeks test results with your class?   Well? Revision? Practice? It’s simpler than that- last weeks test results.

Now think about this. What are the best predictors for future enthusiasm and engagement? Topic choice? Use of technology? Agency? Again, it’s simpler than that- what enthusiasm and engagement are like right now.

So, to the crux of the matter. What is the risk of the fear of failure for next week? Next term? A lifetime? Yes indeed, what it’s like right now.


This has had more of an alarm bell ringing in my head than anything I’ve ever read before. It’s so darn obvious. And it does ring true. Think of those students who come up from primary with a ‘reputation’, for them, that reputation is often seen as impossible task to shift for the student and more often than we would like, students revert to type. Think of those students who lack motivation by the end of Year 7. Do they all suddenly become super motivated in Year 11? Certainly not all, despite all the interventions, going on report, the great form tutor pep talks, the meetings with parents.. So what can we do? We have to recognise that TODAY’S SUCCESS IS FUNDAMENTAL TO FUTURE SUCCESS. It was at this point I finally gave in and could see a use for those ‘flight paths’ of predicted achievement. If you fail, and you don’t get the opportunity to address that failure and turn it into success, we start to see a different pattern immerge from that perfect line on the flight path.



So if today’s success is fundamental to future success, what should we be doing differently? Well, this is where the C word really starts to hit me. CULTURE. We need to build a culture of ‘success seeking students’ from the moment they enter the door every morning. It’s why we need to ensure that any failures are not just brushed under the carpet or ignored, but we do something about it. And quickly. Don’t let things slip early on. Don’t let students accept failure, don’t let them accept being average or settling for mediocrity. Allow them to fail of course.  But let the students know that they can get there. It may be tricky, it may be painful at times, but they can do it. No matter their starting point, progress can be made, they can be successful. We need to be relentless about this. Every day. Every lesson. No excuses.

We need to ensure all our students are success seekers and don’t fear failure to ensure academic success and well-being.

So what are the attributes of success seekers? Andrew Martin states in his excellent book that they should:

  • Be forward looking
  • Pursuers of challenge
  • Have a  healthy school-life balance
  • See school as a journey, not a race
  • Have a quiet confidence, and a determination for personal excellence
  • A desire to achieve to please themselves, not others
  • See themselves as stars in their own right.

Who wouldn’t want that for their students? Question is, how do we ensure that students grow and maintain these traits? It’s clear that through reading this book, a lot of this is tied up with self-esteem.

self esteem.001

Self esteem is a top priority for our students. Protecting self-esteem is a number one pastime for those pesky teens. They will often go to extraordinary lengths to protect it, often at the cost of academic success. With self-esteem tending to be based on cleverness or competence, it’s hardly surprising that the fear of failure can have such a negative impact on young people.

The more success you have, the higher the self-esteem, so growing and maintaining those traits should be our students and teachers a key aim.  Martin goes further stating that “students who think highly of themselves tend to embrace challenging tasks that ultimately improve their skills and enhance their chance of success in future activities and tasks.” And that “Students who think more highly of themselves tend to invest more effort and persistence in tasks.” Boom! This is why we cannot allow students to not achieve continual progress and feel success. The correlation between prior and future attainment is incredibly powerful. It also means that just telling students about a growth mindset isn’t enough, they need to have the self-esteem to embrace the challenge, to persevere in the face of difficulty, to respond to criticism and to see effort as the path to mastery.


This brings me back to culture. Does your school and your curriculum develop students self esteem? Do you scrutinise the progress made by each member of your class, and stop, pick up and sort out those who have failed. Do you make the biggest deal ever of those students who have not kept up the same standard that they started with in September? If not, you can expect them to fail more frequently in the future. This is covered in more detail in Andrew Martin’s excellent book. I will discuss what students do to protect their self-esteem due to a fear of failure in the next post.


We need to demonstrate to students how failure and poor performance can provide us with important information about how they can do better next time and we need to help students understand that failure and poor performance say a lot about how hard they try, the way they do things and their knowledge AND THAT THESE THINGS CAN BE IMPROVED. IMG_1066


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