Fiona McCade: A winning lesson in losing

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Fans of Star Trek will immediately understand what I’m talking about, but for anybody out there who has never experienced an attack of the Klingons, let me explain something called the Kobayashi Maru.

The Kobayashi Maru is a test for trainee Star Fleet officers, but most importantly, it is an unpassable test. There is no right answer; there is no way out. Every option in the computer-simulated scenario leads eventually to disaster. Its purpose is to evaluate the candidate’s strength of character; to see how they react and cope with total and utter failure. The only person ever to ‘win’ in the Kobayashi Maru no-win situation was a cadet called James T Kirk. And how did he do it? After his second failed test, he got so frustrated, he sneakily re-programmed the computer. Even he admitted he had cheated, but because Star Fleet likes a guy with gumption, they gave him an award for “original thinking”.

The authorities at Oxford High School for Girls sound like they might be Trekkies, because they have also set their pupils an impossible task.

The school’s exam record is so excellent, the girls are getting overly used to achieving high, often perfect, scores. So, they are undergoing an unexpected challenge. Teachers have developed an online maths test which sets ever harder questions, until finally – however bright she may be – the candidate simply cannot answer. Inevitably, she will experience something she may never have experienced before. Failure.

I’m an expert in this field, as every maths test I’ve ever sat has ended in complete disaster, but at least I can cope with the sight of red ink, and I’m never going to collapse in a heap just because I didn’t give Stephen Hawking a run for his money.

Helen Fraser, CEO of the Girls’ Day School Trust, commented that this strategy will hopefully show pupils that “being perfect is the enemy of learning” and I couldn’t agree more. I have learned much more from my myriad mistakes than I ever have from my (admittedly, less frequent) successes. In fact, on occasion, I’ve learned that my ‘successes’ weren’t half as great as I’d thought, and my ‘mistakes’ weren’t nearly so bad. Most importantly, I’m still learning, and I’m still messing up, but with every catastrophe that befalls me, at best I’m getting wiser and at worst, well, I’m getting less afraid of the next one. Been there, done that, got the scar tissue.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating defeatism here. I’m shoulder-to-shoulder with Winston Churchill in saying: “Never give in; never give in; never give in,” but those very words prove he’d already failed at least once, or he wouldn’t have had to keep trying, would he? Winston had more than a few disasters in his time. If he hadn’t, he wouldn’t have gained so much vital experience, and would never have become the man he needed to be when his moment finally arrived.

Critics of the no-win scenario say that it will discourage pupils and they will stop trying once they realise the odds are unbeatable, but I disagree. I think it’s far more likely that tests like this will create a generation of budding James T Kirks, who will never give in. Instead, they will try and think around the problem until they invent a few imaginative solutions of their own.

Whether that happens or not, like the Kobayashi Maru, this is a test of personality, not scholarship. At the very least, the girls will get a powerful insight into their own characters, which is worth a thousand A* grades in itself. And if they do find themselves deeply discouraged, they have time to work on it before the real world and real disappointment strike.

Given that a perfect life is an impossibility, we may as well get used to imperfection, defeat and downright ruination as quickly as we can. Starting in secondary school doesn’t seem like a moment too soon.

Losing fosters strength, resilience, self-control and creativity, while winning isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. As Rudyard Kipling so perfectly put it, if we “can meet with Triumph and Disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same” we’ll be OK. In fact, we’ll be good enough for Star Fleet.