Thursday 13 July 2017

Are Our Students Failing Enough?

This week I've been thinking a lot about resilience. It's become a very trendy word for teaching and learning experts to throw around, but I do believe it is important. It's not just about being able to persevere with a question when you gt it wrong the first time (although that is obviously a useful quality), it's about taking whatever life throws at you and dealing with it. It's about not being manipulated by the media or caving in to peer pressure. It's about surviving emotional turmoil. All of these things are essential qualities for happy, well functioning human beings. And therefore, as teachers, it is our duty to develop these qualities in our students.

One occasion this week that really made me think about resilience was Sports Day. Without wishing to offend anyone involved in the planning of Sports Day, I do have to say that I was completely unimpressed by the students. Why were there students walking in a 300m race? Yes sprinting 300m might be difficult, but jogging it is not. And why were the students slowing down when they got close to the finish line, not speeding up? This worries me. Students who walk a 300m race and place 8th, 9th or 10th, have not really lost. Technically they have lost, because they came last. But they won't feel like they have lost, because by walking half of the race they have actually removed themselves from the race. Therefore they do not experience failure. This may seem like quite a clever defense mechanism, as failure is painful and our brains try to avoid pain if possible. However, if we don't experience it, we can't build up coping mechanisms and ways of dealing with it healthily.

Interestingly, the only race that was even slightly exciting to watch was the relay race. One person from each year for each house ran 100m, making a 400m race in total. Every student in this race actually looked like they were trying to win. This has some implications: students care more about their team winning than themselves winning; students are less afraid of failure when they have the support of a group who will fail with them; and winning is more valuable when it can be shared with other people. This suggests that one way to start building up resilience in our students is to focus first on group failure.

Lately I've become obsessed with chess. I'm spending almost all of my leisure time on, learning strategies and playing against the computer (level 2 out of 10 now!) When I'm not playing chess, I'm watching my students play chess, or I'm thinking about the educational benefits of playing chess, or I'm writing a blog about chess. I think chess is a really great game for helping students get used to failure. Chess is played one on one, and for one person to succeed, the other person must fail. Because somebody has to fail, I think that makes it feel like it's OK to fail. In a maths test, nobody has to fail. It is not inevitable that someone will fail. So if you fail, you feel bad. But in chess, 50% of all people playing must fail. There is no way around that. So failing is OK. You should still feel bad about it. You should still feel that sting of disappointment or that flare of anger or that flush of humiliation. You should still throw your Bishop at your opponent's head (that deffo wasn't me in Japanese club last week...) But it's like you have permission to feel those feelings. You are experiencing safe failure. And if you can experience safe failure enough times, it might just prepare you for the real, scary failure that awaits you in your life outside the classroom.

Do we model failure to our students? Do we show them how to fail properly? Do we demonstrate, the same way we demonstrate nice manners and good literacy and integrity and respect, what good failing looks like? Do we tell them that we failed our Art GCSE, or do we only mention the nine A*s we got? Do we talk about the fifty times we entered dance competitions and lost, or do we only mention the three that we won? Do we ever say to our students, "I taught you really badly yesterday, I'm going to try and do better today"?

We can't protect our students from failing forever. We can give everyone "participation medals" on sports day and we can remove their grades from the front of their mock exams and we can tell them that Art isn't a real subject anyway, but we can't stop them failing their first year of university or not getting the jobs they're applying for or struggling with debt or having to handle a leaky roof.

The classroom is not a big enough place to gain that kind of resilience. Students need to gain it from taking part in sports, theatre, Duke of Edinburgh award, organising charity events, work experience placements, taking themselves to summer schools or master classes on the train, and the list goes on and on. Unfotunately, these are the very things that are being cut from our students' timetables. With more and more focus on getting the grades they need in their GCSEs and A-Levels, D of E becomes purely UCAS bait and everything else is thrown away completely. In almost every school across the country, the laughingly named "enrichment" timetable is mostly made up of revision classes, intervention sessions, and homework help. Students can't afford to miss lesson time to go on trips or do anything that isn't examinable.

We may look at the system and think that there's nothing we can do. But we are still in charge of what takes place in our lessons, and we can still find ways of achieving this goal, we might just have to think a little bit longer and harder about it. I've found some great ideas from watching TED talks and reading various blogs and from conversations with colleagues in the corridors. I'm excited to try out some ideas, and I'll report back if any of them are successful. Actually, I'll report back if any of them are not successful too, because, after all we can learn just as much from failure as we can from success.

Emma x x x


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