Arranging failure

I had the pleasure of compiling and delivering a day of leadership training to BTEC students in early May.  They will be planning and running a badminton festival for year 3 and 4 pupils later in the year, so my brief was to help prepare them for this experience.  Luckily, we were able to use a year 7 PE group as guinea pigs in the afternoon, and so prepared a mock festival for them to experience.

Having read a lot recently around meaningful practice, the value of failure, and the value of introverted leaders I decided to split the day into two distinct halves.  The morning consisted of activities introduced and structured by me.  Tasks looking at the characteristics and behaviours of good and bad leaders, and some considerations for working with young people before exploring some badminton specific skill development ideas.  This was very based around me as the extrovert introducing and drawing out the learning.  I then provided the students with example festival activites from BADMINTON England ( and they set up their stations and made themselves familiar with the equipment required and the purpose of their activity.  Each pair of leaders had the opportunity to introduce and demonstrate their station to their peers by way of preparation for the afternoon.  The last thing I did before lunch was to explain that I would be virtually invisible in the afternoon and that they were in charge.

During the munch break I briefed their teacher of my aim for the afternoon – to allow mistakes, to ask questions to encourage the leaders to think, and to provide no answers but draw them from the leaders.  I explained that there would be messy parts, and times when it would be tempting to intervene, but we both agreed to step back and let the event run it’s course.

In the afternoon then, I became an introvert and left them to it.  Apart from one safety issue neither myself nor the class teacher intervened.  Challenges that faced the leaders included:

  • Having a different number of pupils than expected and having to decide what to do about group sizes
  • Assigning roles – who to lead a whole group warm up, who to split the class into groups
  • Logistics – how to divide the class, how to move groups from one activity to the next
  • How to adapt/evolve activities to keep learners engaged
  • How to sell their activity as a worthwhile exercise
  • Keeping to a time limit
  • Deciding whether to join in with or stand back from activities
  • What to do when they had a rest period

It was obvious to see those who had made use of the morning’s activities and had taken the opportunity to think about what they would do in the afternoon and how.  It was also interesting to see some who seemed un-engaged in the morning come to life in the afternoon.  Some came to ask me or their teacher what to do each time a new event occurred (we didn’t tell them!), others instantly adapted, problem solved and moved on.

Time allowed us to provide a variety of feedback to the leaders after the festival.  The year 7 group fed back to their teacher which we then showed to the leaders.  The leaders evaluated themselves, but mostly the activities and I offered some observations.  This worked really well.  Whilst all three viewpoints had similarities, each offered ideas that others hadn’t thought of.  The year 7 students picked up on things the leaders weren’t aware of, I suggested strengths that they had not considered, and both year 7 and the leaders suggested aspects I had felt unimportant that they thought would have improved the experience.

So, a messy festival that to the outsider may not have looked slick and smooth actually provided a great chance for some “Deep Learning” (Coyle, 2009).  The semi-live nature put the leaders under pressure and outside of their comfort zone whilst allowing them to make mistakes in a relatively safe environment.  When they have to do it for real with years 3 and 4 they will have the experience to draw from as well as the feedback.

What did I learn?  This continued to feed my developing feeling that controlled failure is hugely important.  It confirmed that, in the correct environment, learning can happen without teaching (uh oh!). And, I’m starting to think that if you give people enough rope, they might hang themselves, but more often they will find out how to tie and use a reef knot!

I saw a version of this related clip posted on twitter recently which I love:


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About the Author: Stephen Pritchard

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