Something that seems quite a paradox to me is the balance between helping students succeed against helping them gather independent skills for success in the future. I’m sure everyone agrees that while spoon-feeding and teaching to the test might bring better grades in a specific examination, this process certainly does not prepare students sufficiently for any other kinds of assessment or future experiences they might encounter.
However, I am certainly guilty of focusing on exam practice at certain points throughout the year whilst teaching my classes biology. In addition I am hugely in favour of having regular end of topic testing and reviewing pupil progress accordingly. This is probably due to my inclination for students to enjoy success and do well but also, and more importantly, I am trying to teach about the importance of failure and how to learn from it. On finishing eighth at the 2014 London Marathon Mo Farah was quoted as saying
“I’m not going to finish it like this. I will be back… It was pretty tough. I’m quite disappointed but you try things and if they don’t work, at least you gave it a go…you learn – life goes on”
To me this is the crux of the matter, don’t just judge something by the final measurable outcome but rather by what is gained by going through the process; failure is part of success. So although I certainly do not equate running almost full tilt around London for 26.2 miles to an end of topic test result, the actual result is just a starting point and another stop of the learning process but definitely not the end.
Most schools do not celebrate failure quite as much as they celebrate shiny A* grades and league table success for obvious reasons. As co-ordinator of my school’s Teaching and Learning Group we have often discussed the best ways to encourage independent work and it always comes back to the balance between success and failure. In particular when and how we allow our students to fail, if at all. I doubt any school would wait until the final examinations, KS4 and KS5 are currently too important an indicator of learning. Without getting into the debate as to whether current methods of assessment in all their guises are the best way to measure ability, they are used as the main and seemingly most important indicator to many people.
So where does or can failure occur? I would suggest that the list is actually quite extensive, end of topic tests, mock exams, homework and classwork to name a few from my own teaching. Some of our students volunteer to take Higher and Extended Projects and this always seems a glorious opportunity for them to showcase their wider interests. I also believe it is a glorious opportunity to allow students to fail. Of the 60ish students that start an EPQ half will not complete it. However, those that have failed to complete the project have actually learned a good deal and had the realisation that there is not always a “rescuer” waiting in the wings.
The “rescuer” is an interesting concept introduced to me though the book The Multiplier Effect: Tapping the Genius Inside our Schools by Liz Wiseman, Lois Allen and Elise Foster. This book was initially recommended to me by a friend Nick Dennis who is a Deputy Head at Berkhamsted School. After beginning the book at the start of the academic year I emailed Nick straight away very enthusiastically extolling the idea that teachers can be multipliers for their students; the book went on to describe how to get more out of others by inhibiting diminishing behaviours. In March I was lucky enough to listen to Elise at the outstanding TLAB14 giving me further food for thought. An excellent example of a diminishing behaviour that immediately struck a chord with me was when asking a question how long do you give people to answer… When I reflected on my own practice I realised that I am incredibly gung-ho and expect an answer within nanoseconds often answering it myself if there is no answer forthcoming. I now wait longer, in some cases much longer, for a response and the difference is quite remarkable. Since reading the book I have noticed other diminisher traits in myself that I have always thought helped scaffold students but perhaps prevent failure and thus disrupt the learning process; it is easy to be a diminisher with the best intentions. Coming back to the example of “the rescuer” who steps in to save a student from failing, are we too quick to rush to the rescue? At this point I must paraphrase Alfred Pennyworth in the hugely successful film Batman Begins
“Why do we fall Master Bruce? So we can learn to pick ourselves back up.”
Perhaps if we don’t let students fail they will never learn to get back up.
Header image created by Michael Smyth inspired by similar found widely on the internet.