Failing and Fragility

In the weeks since this blog has been running, I’ve often commented on the precarious nature of exploration, of the means to invite in the unknown, or encourage the unforeseen.

At Salford, as we continue to unpack Salford Curriculum+, our new academic sub-strategy and the structured collection of thoughts and work streams that will steer and shape the learning endeavour at Salford for the foreseeable future, we are actively continuing to capitalise upon and develop the deliberate capacity for the student to encounter the unknown and the unexpected through their learning. Central to steering this desire is the recognition that to encounter such circumstance, to walk out with trepidation across the ice, is an act in which one experiences the expansion of personal horizons. Regardless of whether one falls through the ice and gets wet (as I have) or skates gleefully across to arrive unscathed at the other side (as I have) the experience of simply venturing into a (partially) unmapped realm where possibility is rendered as present is in itself a precarious undertaking that stretches one’s personal perceptions of what might, or might not be possible. Encountering failure (getting wet and cold) is all part of the necessary journey towards building a flexible resilience based on the accrued wisdom of experience.

I’m writing this on a train. Earlier on in the journey I was sat opposite a toddler, (I’m guessing about 18 months old) who was sat next to her mum. Toddler and Mum were playing a loose game, the winner of which ended up with more wooden blocks. Not particularly structured, but there was a kind of running agreement on the rules. As the game progressed, I watched the toddler really struggle with losing; with having her wooden blocks taken away. (Oh, don’t worry; they were given back – it was all very gentle) At the young tender age of 18 months, there was obviously ( and quite appropriately/ thankfully) very little experience of losing, or of things going in a direction other than that of the internal plan of a toddlers mind.

This little train-based scene being played out got me thinking (again) about the issue of preparedness in our students (it wasn’t that they behave like toddlers – stay with me folks). I was thinking about them in relation to the learning landscape we are designing at Salford and which we know, (based on many many points of direct reference) will help them to develop the graduate resilience and qualities so desired by the wider industry and employer.

Specifically, I was reminded of this great article by Irina Popescu which recognises a ‘frailty’ in some students, seen in the manner in which they are able to cope, or not cope, with failure and more profoundly, the discomfort of not knowing, or not being given the comfort of certainty.

Herein lies the issue. Students are (predominately) coming to university from an educational system or culture in the UK which prizes passing above all else, or at least, passing is the cipher through which ‘good’ definitions of good are understood. Indeed, students need these to grades to get to us. And those grades are rewarded on the basis of having passed. In order to pass, one must practice passing – practice producing positive results. But in the pursuit of those results the act of learning by failure and the possibility for genuine exploration and risky adventure into the unknown is minimised, with a consequential decrease in student’s appetite for such endeavours. Here, the ice-covered lake has, at the safe end of things, had a bridge built across it by the tutor, entirely de-risking the activity for the student. Even at the dangerous end, there’s still a map showing the thin spots.

So what to do? We need to prepare our prospective students, to develop an experience and experiential understanding of what we do at Salford prior to their arrival with us, so that failing is seen as a positive developmental experience, and unblemished success is perhaps not so useful in the grand scheme of graduate things. At the moment (and this is a working, shifting and long term piece of work) I think some of it is all about a conscious , deliberate unlearning of certain habits and thought patterns, and a relearning of the capacity for success through failure.

Developing this work and, moreover, doing it in a sustained and systematic manner, is a long walk out over uncertain ice in itself….

See you next week.


Author: samgrogan

I am many sided; Pro Vice-Chancellor Student Experience at Salford University, Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, driven Tough Mudder runner, and a lover of the outdoors. I live in the heart of the beautiful Peak District with my wife and our pets. On weekends, you'll find me out in the countryside with the dog, running or walking up a hill, or typically cooking for friends (I'm getting better, so they say) My role at Salford is one I cherish. I'm one of the fortunate few who wake up excited about the day ahead. It's really not work when it's this much fun. As part of the Vice-Chancellor's Executive Team I work alongside a gifted and dedicated team of creative educationalists passionate about being better tomorrow than we are today. As PVC SE at Salford I hold executive responsibility for both the assurance of quality and standards of our institutional academic portfolio, and its strategic direction and character. Intertwined with this facet of my role, I am responsible for strategic leadership and enhancement of the wider student experience and the development of a distinctive Salford learning environment. My overall purpose, driven by these two key parts of my role, is to develop a bold, playful learning landscape at Salford which delivers holistic sustainable success, preparing our students for life. I'm fascinated by how people learn, and how we might collectively make that experience result in a profound expansion of personal and professional horizons and an extension of possibilities for all parties involved. My greatest reward comes from seeing thresholds crossed, barriers broken, new habits formed and changes made. To this end, I'm also endlessly absorbed in considering how we might develop better, more useful ways of integrating the digital landscape and other technologies, emerging and present, into the act of learning. I think we're just beginning - a brave new world awaits... My background is in performance - Before undertaking my PhD and before spending the first half of my university career as a lecturer, programme leader and head of department, in my early career I acted, danced and made theatre across the world. This ten year experience continues to be fundamental in shaping the way I think about teaching and learning. At its best I see it as a facilitated journey of discovery, play, risk and adventure anchored in 'reflective doing'. Not 'knowing' in this context is often a signal that a useful path is being trodden - Thinking on its own is just rehearsal...

3 thoughts on “Failing and Fragility”

  1. Hello Sam, perhaps we need to find a different word or phrase for ‘fail’ , ‘failing’ , ‘failure’? We also need to build in to our assessment system the ability to recognise and reward the ‘glorious failure’ i.e. the brave attempt which didn’t quite work but from which was derived a huge amount of learning.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely Paul! Thanks for the comment.

      I’d agree- recognising glorious failure as a valuable experience is imperative for meaningful development.

      I’m not sure of an appropriate nomenclature to describe this- ‘deferred success’ is awful, as it presumes that nothing valuable was taken from the experience of failure.

      One to wrestle with, but it’s an interesting point you make- the persuasive subtle parameters of the language we use are fundamental in shaping ideas, attitudes and behaviours.

      Speak soon



  2. Interesting stuff this week Sam, lots of elements I’ve wondered about in terms of our more general approach to education. Something I think that is key in the notion of failure discussed here is in the more conscious act of paying for the process. However one might feel about the tuition fee debate, the attachment of a cost to further education undertaken by the student surely radically changed their relationship to the undertaking. It is a commodity being purchased, and this cost must affect the predication to take risk and ‘fail’ within the process. Are they a customer? Do they want to pay for the chance to fail at things? Finding a way to reward the process of taking constructive risks so that it is money well spent is the key surely, so that the process of the opportunity for supported trial and error is what is celebrated and what is purchased, as the best method of equipping us to do the same thing beyond the walls of the university.

    Liked by 1 person

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