Embracing failure: 'Black Box Thinking'

Having read @nataliescott's blog on here recommending 'Black Box Thinking' by Matthew Syed, I decided to read the book. I haven't finished yet, but what I have read has stimulated lots of interesting ideas that I intend to use both with staff and students. 

The book compares a number of different approaches to failure, but focuses on two industries in particular: healthcare and airlines. Both industries face critical situations, yet their approach to failure is very different:


‘If there is an accident (Which may or may not result in a crash), the [black] boxes are opened, the data is analysed, and the reason for the accident excavated….'

'In 2013, there were 36.4 million commercial flights worldwide, carrying more than 3 billion passengers…only 210 people died…a rate of one accident per 2.4million flights.’


‘In healthcare, however, things are very different…Between 44,000 and 98,000 Americans die each year as a result of preventable medical errors…French healthcare put the number even higher, at 14 per cent... Yet autopsies are hardly ever performed. Data in the US suggests that less than 10% of deaths are followed by an autopsy.'

The books overall summary is that success paradoxically is in failure - so long as you engage with it, reflect on it and change as a result of it. 

Our year 12 students have just completed their mocks and I have been struck with how outcome orientated many of the students are. Rather than seeing the mocks as the 'dress rehearsals' that should root out mistakes, they have (naturally) taken the result rather personally. It strikes me that education could do far more 'black box thinking' than we currently do - although marking should always be formative, how many students genuinely engage with this? Equally, as teachers all looking at new specs and courses, how often do we share our own mistakes? I'd like to think that I am always open to adapting my practice and improving, but I don't think I have openly discussed my 'failures' in such a constructive way - despite making many! 

I am sure that 'black box thinking' could have an marked impact in a wide range of approaches - thank you @nataliescott for sharing it with me! 

Author Profile

Amy Kennedy

Amy Kennedy

Deputy director of sixth form and history teacher.

17 stories


[Retired Colleague] [Retired Colleague] [Retired Colleague] 1 year ago
I was thinking about this too! Now planning to buy this book.. Thanks for sharing! :)
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