Inspirational culture and the celebration of failure in education

Carl Hendrick

Speaking on the art of direction, Terry Gilliam said that the difference between Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick is that while Spielberg gives you comforting answers, they’re not very clever answers, whereas Kubrick gives you something you have to really think about. For Gilliam, Kubrick’s work articulates a more recondite truth about humanity that doesn’t patronise its audience with platitudes and banalities but instead celebrates ambiguity, complexity and rejects the comforting, media friendly sound byte.

Spielberg’s work has its place of course and provides just as valid a form of entertainment as anything else. Sometimes “not very clever answers” are exactly what we need, but when those answers overreach their scope and are posited as a deep and inherent truth about life and offered as a maxim for how to live our lives, we risk conflating the truly profound for the pseudo profound. Inspirational culture is characterised by this conflation, telling us that the world is a lot simpler that is actually is.

This week there have been a series of ‘inspirational’ messages aimed at comforting students facing difficult exams. One of the central messages is that failing these exams doesn’t matter and that what really counts is “dreaming big” or “going on adventures.” Other messages advise students taking their SATS not to study over the weekend but instead “ride a scooter” or “eat Haribo and ice cream.”

While well intentioned, these statements conceal some concerning messages. They give students comforting, easy answers to difficult questions and implicitly tell them that instead of confronting difficulties, and being OK with confronting difficulties, they should instead be entertained all the time and be unconcerned with consequences. These messages fetishise failure as a means of growing, but failure doesn’t mean dismissing challenge and difficulty. Real failure means trying your very best at something and learning from the experience come what may, not “dreaming big” on a scooter all weekend.

Many inspirational messages not only patronise children with overly simple answers but also reveal a deep ignorance about the very real challenges many of them face. A lot of inspirational culture seems to come via highly successful individuals from wealthy backgrounds who fetishise their own failure with evangelical zeal, but failure is relative. What if you are from a second generation immigrant family with English as a second language? Is it in their best interest to eat Haribo and ice cream all weekend rather than giving themselves every opportunity of academic success? For many purveyors of failure, the consequences of flippantly failing the SAT exam as an adult and posting it on social media are on a different planet to the kind of consequences many kids from deprived backgrounds will face. Failure is relative and not all failure is good. I’m reminded of Donald Trump’s “inspirational” message earlier this year claiming that things had “not been easy for him” and that his father had given him a “small loan” of a million dollars to help him get started.

And while we’re on exams, a curious claim this week was that the SATs tests were were too “middle class” and “would have had no relevance to inner-city children or ones with no or little life skills.” Are we to take from this then that we should only teach kids that which they are interested in or already know about? Isn’t the point of education to broaden the minds of young people and introduce them to the vast expanse of human achievement and the natural world? Surely we want children to be intellectually curious, to have an ever expanding thirst for the best which has been thought and said, and to be exposed to a world beyond the limits of their time and space.

Failure has become the cri de cœur of the inspirational movement. A Princeton academic recently published a ‘Failure CV’ to wide acclaim which lists among them, a series of failed research funding proposals. However, rejections from doctorate programs at Harvard, Stanford and Cambridge are a world away from the prospect many children face if they fail key exams up to 16. All failure is not equal, and to propagate that is ill-judged, to celebrate it is irresponsible.

Inspirational culture implicitly tells the reader that they are too stupid to understand actual complexity and that they can do their thinking for them by summing up deep philosophical problems like failure in a pithy phrase or inspirational slogan on social media. We shouldn’t patronise children with the facile platitudes of inspirational messages (many of which are merely cynical opportunism,) we should be honest with them about the consequences of failure, both good and bad. We should equip them with the bravery to accept irresolution, challenge and difficulty and not provide them with the simple answers of inspirational culture. Failure may be an option for some of us, but not for all of us and for some kids, the consequences are far greater than others.



  1. mmiweb

    Hi. I find myself in a some quandary in replying to this – perhaps this is a good place to be more Kubrickian than Spielbergian! I did groan when I saw the meme you illustrate about with the persons seemingly boast about failing the SATs but I think that there is another argument which is the prevalence of the use of the examination scores and a more and more singular marker of success and often a determinant factor for children at 11 or 16 (or other ages).

    There is no doubt that summative examinations have a place in the assessment of children but they should not be THE determinant there should be other opportunities for children to demonstrate success and achievement and this should be wider than the narrow academic. Ideas and passion are not enough in their own right, I am reminded of the cliché of 10% of inspiration and 90% perspiration, but they are not a bad things to have.

    So, I do want to encourage children to do well in summative examinations but I also want us to have more reasoned debate about the values and structure of these examinations; despite the recent claim by Morgan this (and previous) government have not been listening to the profession.


    • teachwell

      I can’t help that it’s an excuse to spread the ‘beliefs’ of idiots like this. If it’s not SATs, it would be getting something wrong, ever. It’s a perfection or nothing way of thinking which is damaging and as Carl says the consequences of failure are not equal. And it seems to me that the point such platitudes is to make those who do succeed feel worse too – as though there is something wrong with success or knowing what one’s abilities actually are. Middle class idiots should not be allowed access to the internet.


  2. amyegardner1

    Thank you for this profound and timely article. As someone who has experienced more than her fair share of failure, I firmly believe that many of us throw the word around as if it doesn’t mean anything. I think we could all benefit from a deeper understanding of the true consequences of failure and practical ways to both avoid and overcome it.


  3. tonyparkin

    Carl -“Are we to take from this then that we should only teach kids that which they are interested in or already know about?” Er no. What we SHOULD take from this is that TESTING children should always involve a level playing field, and that tests of this nature should not be designed to favour middle class children at the expense of the disadvantaged.
    It is perfectly possible to design tests which are relevant, fair and valid. Of course there will always be vocabulary and grammar with which children from disadvantaged backgrounds, or for whom English is a second language, will not be familiar. There is obviously a balance to be struck. But I would suggest that the current tests do not measure your ability in English, as they are meant to, but rather the class you come from, and/or how traditional the grammar teaching that you have experienced. And grammar tests for 11 year olds that a Secretary of State for Schools who had a grammar school education can’t answer is clearly not meeting that requirement for fairness and balance.


  4. Pique Boo

    I had assumed it was some random primary teacher, but no it’s Abi the Aristocrat, children’s author, international adventuring, outdoors, mountains and climbing type. The latter tends to be social levelling down-to-earth type stuff so we’d probably get along, but yes I suspect she doesn’t understand what life is like without a financial safety net.

    Y8 Sprogette is an outdoors, mountains and climbing type who ticks some of the adventurous ‘wild child’ boxes e.g. at one point during the summer holidays after her Y6 SATs she was hanging in her harness and cheerfully singing Edelweiss with a very long way to fall near the top of a very difficult vertical ½ km alpine ascent that she had led. But I think the derring-do stuff selects for her nature rather than creates and it won’t have a significant impact on her future. We’re not ‘deprived’, but we do live fairly modest lives on the wrong side of the tracks so Sprogette will have to stand on her own feet as an adult and school-side academic achievements are obviously her best hope for that.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Sarah Atkin

    I think the slogan ‘all failure is not equal’ should be plastered on the walls of every school. We are doing our children no favours by indulging the myth that ‘the cream always rises to the top’ and ‘there’s always a second chance.’ It doesn’t. There isn’t. Effort matters. Academic success matters. It’s the passport to wider opportunity.


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