On examinations, results & why learning from failure is as important as revelling in success


Less usual for me, I am beginning my post straight into a quotation I rather admire –

“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”   Theodore Roosevelt

Much is on my mind of late, at this perilous time of year, as examinations, mock, real or retakes, dominate the school agenda and the lives of so many young people and their families.

For those of you who have read earlier posts, you will note that perilous is a phrase that recurs. I do not know for why. Perhaps it is just that it seems most apt, for the themes that matter most to me.

Theodore Roosevelt gave voice to that romantic notion of the heroic, stoic, valiant hero, who has set his life to striving for an ideal, and by his efforts, has elevated himself from the sides of those ‘cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.’

But what about our more ordinary mortals? How do we cope with the prospect of failure, and the joys of success? And how do we cope when our children experience outcomes other than those which may have been hoped for?

I have a daughter awaiting mock GCSE results, and so this post is partly inspired by personal thoughts and motivations. It is that usual jumble of an interest here and half a thought there, that prompts me to set to order some of my far-reaching thoughts and ideas.

In searching around for ideas and comment that validate my own thoughts, I came upon a post from the Harvard Business Review – http://hbr.org/ – always an excellent source of knowledge, insight and debate –


In this post, Robert I Sutton, a Stanford University Professor of Management Science & Engineering, talks of the importance of ‘after event reviews’. This may easily be applicable to our post-examination period.

“The basic idea is, as soon as feasible after some action occurs, a facilitator and/or teacher should have a conversation with the key participants about what went right, what went wrong, and what could be done better next time.”

Sutton argues that ‘after event reviews’ whether focused on failure alone or both successes and failure, spark new learning. The most important thing is to have that discussion, that ‘after event review’.

I wonder how many of you, as parents of students currently sitting examinations, will build in time to discuss not just the successes of this past few weeks, but also the very real difficulties and problems that have occured. It is never enough to banish our problems to the closet of our minds. Sometimes, bringing them out into the light of the day, is enough to shake off that gloom and despondency, and move forward with renewed vigour.

In my own home, time has been set aside this weekend, after the obligatory post-exam pizza experience, to talking through with my daughter what strategies have most engendered success, in each examination, and what subjects have needed more revision, or a different type of approach, or better study skills. I have a mind that this may be over pancakes and a leisurely breakfast, before all thoughts of examinations are out of mind, and the usual pressures of the school day, homework and activities take over.

I do not favour the idea that these discussions are best placed after the results have come through, for that is too late to learn from the experience. Then the focus will be on marks, percentages, grades, comparisons with peers and a young person’s mind will be far too occupied to take in lessons from events weeks ago.

No, the real learning time is now, in this short post-event period. The time is always now.

I have adored of old, that wonderful film, The Dead Poet’s Society, which enthralled me in those golden, halcyon days of my yonger self, and pleases no less now.

‘carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero’

Popularly we translate Carpe Diem as ‘Seize the Day’, but more literally, I have been assured, the complete quotation reads, ‘Pluck the day, trusting as little as possible in the future’. I believe that is the essence of the post by Robert Sutton, of The Harvard Business Review in his commentary on success and failure and post-event reviews.

At the outset, I had good intentions that my post was going to focus on ‘clarity, focus, concentration’ and here am I, well near the end of my self-imposed word count and time limit, without a reference. Some loss of focus there, maybe…

So, to rectify, I came across the site ‘Mission to Learn’ hosted by Jeff Cobb, who describes his site as ‘ being about individual excellence, collective wisdom, and lifelong learning in pursuit of both.’

I am rather pleased to have found his post on How to Improve Concentration and Focus. It is an excellent read.


I love instinctively, the phrase ‘be conscious and intentional’.

Finally, I will close with a quotation from another significant and eminent American (goodness, but I have neglected my country here, the while), Henry Ford:

“It has been my observation that most people get ahead during the time that others waste.”

~Henry Ford~


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