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04 May 2021

The Monday Briefing: Not a second time

The Monday Briefing: Not a second time

Nashville, Tennessee; September 17, 2002.

"There's an old saying in Tennessee—I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee—that says, 'Fool me once, shame on...shame on you. Fool me—you can't get fooled again."

George W. Bush’s infamous malapropism is a humorous and typical example of his inability to communicate the well-known aphorism: "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me." 

The former president displayed precisely the lack of comprehension of a critical life lesson that we strive to ensure is known and understood by all students - that it is perfectly acceptable, in fact encouraged, to make mistakes - but that it is completely unacceptable, or foolish, to learn nothing from the process.

With our April Assessments now at an end and our Learning Review commencing, this is the time for students to hone their skills during a three-week revision period in preparation for the closing June Assessments in order to provide evidence with which the College will award Teacher Assessed Grades. It is absolutely essential during this period that they take the lead in responding to their areas for development from April - and that they see this as a chance to embed a philosophy of Kaizen, or ‘continuous improvement through adaptation’. They must see this as part of the bigger picture: that improvement in output is a gradual and methodical process, and that this is all part of a life-long learning process.

It was in listening to year 11 students before a Chemistry exam during their April Assessments that their chief motivator for good exam grades became truly apparent. The conversation revolved almost entirely around the amount of money you have equating with success, even at the expense of knowledge, as they debated what was more important between the two. To effectively target the more materialistic within my audience, I decided to make the following article the core message of my assemblies, preparing students for the revision period and June Assessments.

Of course, even the most wealthy and successful businessmen make mistakes.

While some are reluctant to admit it, and happily palm off responsibility to external factors or bad luck, I was delighted, recently, to read articles by the CEO of Brewdog, James Watt, who was completely transparent in describing several mistakes he has made in his position. Having founded the company with his friend, Martin Dickie, in 2007, Brewdog has enjoyed extraordinary success, now owning almost 100 bars worldwide, one of which has just opened in Ealing. A few years ago, they sold a 22% stake in the company for £213 million, and their rejected pitch to the entrepreneurs of Dragon’s Den, which stalled at the rehearsal stage, would have turned a £100,000 investment for 20% of the company into £360 million in 2020. Success has not come by being conventional however. Brewdog is a risk-taking company, and the very nature of the business means that mistakes are a regular and distinct possibility.

According to Watt, ‘how you make mistakes is much more important than the mistakes you make.’ With a focus on the inevitability of making errors, and the importance of the right response to such instances, he goes on to state that ‘there is a right and a wrong way to make mistakes and the difference is transformational.’

His four point plan is a superb blueprint for students to deal with setbacks:

Firstly, recognise your failures and do so quickly. Only by accepting that something has gone wrong and needs to change, will the process of improvement begin. As he states ‘the longer you leave a mistake, the harder it becomes to fix, the more expensive it becomes to remedy and the more it becomes embedded in your culture.’ More often than not, only through expert advice and guidance will students start to build the picture of priorities for development, but it is an aversion to listening to this advice which sometimes holds them back.

Secondly, they must own their mistakes. Without taking complete responsibility for what went wrong, it’s all too easy to make excuses about why one shouldn’t go about working towards making things right. Again, strong advice is issued when he suggests that ‘any mistake has to be your mistake. You have to set the culture...putting blame anywhere other than yourself prevents you from recognising the cause of your mistake (ultimately you).’ It is in taking the necessary actions that students will not only rectify errors, but will feel empowered by doing so.

Thirdly, Watt requests that those who err should ‘feel the pain’, a necessary stage of the process, and one which we create the circumstances for through replicating the distribution of awards certificates. Such an experience prompts a wide range of reactions from students, from glee to despair, but the secondary emotion should always be based around the pursuit of improvement from that point onwards. Watt again is right when he explains that failure brings painful choices: ‘either learn how to embrace the pain, or learn how to embrace irrelevance.’

Lastly, it is key to change course, or pivot, and do so with energy. ‘It is all too easy to delude yourself that the world should work differently as it does, that you should not have to change anything because you make a mistake, but reality reigns supreme.’ The real world is the best teacher. With a positive attitude to setbacks, one can change anguish and disappointment into something ‘beautiful and catalytic.’

That was always the hope of our April Assessment series: that it would give abundantly clear directions for progress and encourage within students the mindset that they can still improve. Our commitment to all students means that we will help them in this process in a prompt and unadulterated manner. It is for the students to fully embrace the crucial need to exhaust all efforts to work towards their own betterment.

In several ways, our Learning review mirrors his four point plan for how to respond to mistakes, and should set students up well for improvement in their June Assessments. Our review focuses on the following key areas:

- Identification of development points by ensuring that marking and feedback is detailed and offers clear priorities for improvement through clarity of instruction

- Sufficient planning to ensure that learning priorities are identified and tackled both on a personal level and across the group/class

- Students being able to demonstrate a clear awareness of their own levels, their aspirations with regards to the course and how they will bridge the gap in between

- Dissemination of learning and the ability of students to lead this period of intervention with regards to their content knowledge and exam technique

Even in three short weeks, we know that students can make gains - but as teachers, we can too. One of our key priorities as a College this year is in empowering student leadership - and there is no better time, at such a critical point in the year, than now. We must believe in them wholeheartedly to fulfil their potential in assuming responsibility for positive change. This comes through providing opportunities to assume responsibility for the improvement.

Watt’s advice on how to turn mistakes into developmental opportunities is worth trying to embed in young people as early as it possibly can be. It is absolutely essential that society is full of risk takers, driven to avoid the repetition of mistakes by questioning their actions, fully in the knowledge that it is their responsibility to do so, and to work to make things better.

An indispensable final piece of advice from him should be heeded by every student: ‘Most people are risk-averse, and their decision making is laboured and cumbersome. Being agile and responsive gives you the edge.’

Starting now, they should apply such guidance to making every day a day of improvement.

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