Black Box Thinking – Reframing Failure & Success

51H9Pp5odlL.jpg I found this gem of a European summer read at a book exchange in Berlin. Despite the front cover endorsement by the Daily Mail it turned out to be full of valuable ideas and engaging stories. Matthew Syed‘s intention here is to challenge traditional ways of viewing success and failure. I found plenty of connections throughout the book with education and came away with a valuable reminder of the importance of holding one’s ideas lightly.

One of the central comparisons that threaded through the book was the different approaches to failure in medicine and aviation. The former is structured to reframe – and thus ignore – mistakes and the latter uses failures to develop, redesign and progress. Syed argues that viewing failure as profoundly negative and something to be ashamed of prevents us from high levels of performance; “progress in most human activities depends, in large part, on our willingness to learn from failure” (94).

The word ‘failure’ has a stigma for me. I find it blunt and abrasive; rarely do I find use for it. In education, what constitutes a failure is still a learning opportunity. However, Syed warns of danger of protecting ideas from the possibility of failure (120). Part of that is perhaps hiding from the lack of success by searching for evidence of some success. In a classroom something might work for a minority, but it has failed for most of the class. How often does that small slice of success stop me from making genuine change and progress?

Syed also highlighted the impact of cognitive dissonance. When one is challenged for being wrong, our instinct is usually to justify ourselves to protect our self esteem, which involves filtering out evidence which contradicts our position. The book uses several examples to show how the higher one’s position of power or responsibility, the more cognitive dissonance is likely to influence decision making. A truly worrying finding that reminds me of Karen Spencer’s uLearn16 keynote, where she persuasively argued for the importance of holding your ideas lightly.

Explicit links to education where addressed in small passages that drew of Dweck’s work on the growth mindset. There was also some examples given of schools that had set up systems to celebrate failure. In part this is to address the vulnerability of high achieving students who are terrified of risk taking. As Wimbledon High School‘s head teacher put it: “we dare [the students] to fail” (287). I would be interested in reading Syed’s book devoted to analysing the education system. His perspective was a good challenge to my assumptions and a reminder of some important values.


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