NIKOS SAVVAS: Be bold and learn from mistakes

Nikkos Savvas, Principal, West Suffolk College ANL-150503-160010001
Nikkos Savvas, Principal, West Suffolk College ANL-150503-160010001
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For all the students out there who are grappling with exam stress this week, I want to let you into a secret – your life won’t be over if you don’t get the result you want.

It turns out that life is full of second chances. In fact, life is full of third, fourth and even fifth chances for a person with the right attitude. All anyone really needs to make a success of their life is determination. That means in the face of failure or disappointment you get back up, dust yourself down and try again.

If you look at a great inventor like Thomas Edison, who invented the electric light bulb you will see that failing is in fact an important part of the learning process. He tried over and over again trying to get the light bulb to work, then failing and returning to his workshop to try another way. Of this process he said: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Over his lifetime Edison patented more than 1,000 inventions and most of them never saw the light of day. When asked why he kept on going in the face of so many wrong turns he said: “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”

It is the decision not to give up that decides whether someone becomes successful in the end. This attitude, more than any exam result, will set you ahead of the rest in life, education and work.

I actually feel that exams and the stress they cause do not help a student to learn in the best way possible. How can an examiner be sure of what that student really knows or is capable of on the basis of their work on one day? We don’t expect this from people at work. Instead managers take a broad overview of an employee’s performance over a number of months or years before they come to a conclusion about that person’s abilities.

Continuous practice, making mistakes and learning from them are the true way to gain a deeper knowledge of any subject. It’s no good cramming for an exam, passing it and then forgetting what you learned the next day. While I’m sure many of us have done that, how much practical use was that fleeting knowledge to you in your everyday life ten years later? Not much, I expect.

However, compare this to a concert pianist. It is reckoned that to become an expert at playing a musical instrument you must put in at least 10,000 hours of practice. How would that pianist have got on if they gave up at the first wrong note? What if they never took the risk of performing for the first time in public because they were scared of failing? They would never have learned from their mistakes if they did not try again and again to perfect their craft.

This is why I believe a vocational education, which offers constant assessment, room for mistakes and risk taking and plenty of real life experience offers so much more than the black or white vision of success or failure that exams provide.

Students should have the confidence to try out new ideas, experiment with their work and take risks and big leaps so that they have the best chance of learning. We should be teaching our students how to think, how to be resilient and how to cope with failure so they can reach their full potential in life.

-- Nikos Savvas is principal of West Suffolk College