Use coaching to turn failures into learning success

  • Use coaching to turn failures into learning success

Jennie Pennant explains how a coaching approach helps turn errors and failures into stepping stones to learning success

How do you view mistakes? Failures where you should have known better? An inevitable part of trying something new? Or as a form of feedback to help learning? All of us presumably had good and bad experiences of making mistakes when we were at school, and these may well influence how we cultivate attitudes to errors in the classroom today. Adopting a coaching approach means supporting children’s sense of exploration and discovery, where errors, taking risks and going beyond our comfort zones are all seen as essential parts of learning.

Thomas Edison, the American inventor who developed the electric lightbulb, knew the value of this when he said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”. These ‘learning from experience’ attempts led to him finally winning the race to create a functioning electric light bulb. It is easy to focus on the final success rather than the journey that led there.

In classroom terms, this means celebrating the ‘dead ends’ that children explore when trying to solve a mathematics problem, for example. By the end of the lesson they may not have found a solution, but they will understand a lot more about the problem, having successfully used skills such as trial and improvement to help them get closer to the answer.

But how often does this actually feature in our learning focus for the lesson? How often do we say, ‘We are learning how to use dead ends to help us solve a problem’ or stop to review what dead ends children have discovered, and how they help move us forward with the problem?

A coaching approach means encouraging children to develop this mindset. After all, we put them in so many situations where they need to ‘have a go’ and see what happens. So, rather than saying ‘not quite’ when they offer us an answer to our question, we can add ‘But how does that help us with our thinking?’ or ‘But what does that tell us about the question / answer?’

The way we respond to our own mistakes in the classroom will also influence the development of this mindset. We can help by modelling how we welcome errors as a learning point and a way to gather information. You can do this either by engineering a deliberate mistake, or using one that pops up naturally (I’m sure we have all experienced a number of those).

Clive Woodward, the England rugby coach who took the team to victory in the 2003 World Cup, had a powerful strategy. He had an inquisition when things went right, rather than when they went wrong. What would this look like in a classroom? It would mean helping children understand how they achieved success with a problem, challenge or question, so that they are able to repeat that success on another occasion. It would mean pausing to take time unpicking the journey to the solution, rather than being delighted with getting the right answer and moving on immediately.

With mathematical problem solving, for example, it would mean helping the children build up a bank of successful methods they have used to get started on finding a solution. It would mean giving them several questions in a row where they can use the same problem-solving skill in order to become fluent with it - then helping them to articulate how they have used that skill, perhaps through suggesting they devise a ‘top tips’ checklist for an imaginary new member of the class.

So, enjoy welcoming the myriad mistakes that will doubtless occur this week, and showing the children how beneficial those mistakes are for their learning. In other words, enjoy supporting them to be able to repeat their successes.

About the author

Jennie Pennant is a professional development coach and director of Growlearning (


Pie Corbett