Over the weekend, a post on Twitter got me thinking. Rachel O’Connor, President of the NAPD (National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals for Secondary Schools in Ireland) shared the Tweet “we must create psychologically safe spaces so people can F.A.I.L. (First Attempt In Learning) the only way to ensure a mistake free zone is to do nothing!”.
Perhaps this is a strange question to start a blog post for educators with but here goes…. How do you create a space for your students to fail? In traditional teacher training we are often taught that the role of the teacher is to ‘teach’ students to achieve to the best of their ability. Couple this with a societal view of education which can focus on a ‘points race’ or the ideal behind the question, ‘Are you going to College?’. The media has a field day when it comes to publishing school league tables. Into the mix, throw the age old question that children and young people are asked ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’. Too often the unspoken expectation is that ‘smart’ or ‘intelligent’ kids will answer something along the lines of a ‘Doctor, Scientist or Solicitor’. A stereotypical assumption with the potential to cause harm for all, even the high achieving students. Whilst achievement is ultimately the end goal should it be our primary focus?
With the announcement of plans for Leaving Certificate reform, now is the time to begin to unlearn and relearn when it comes to a focus on grades, achievement and the traditional high achiever career routes. Remembering achievement is commonly a by-product of learning. Let’s refocus on learning. Focus on the journey of learning by creating a safe and challenging space which facilitates learning and ultimately achievement for ALL students.
Let me take you back in time to when you were a kid. Or if you have any smallies in your life you might have this playing out in front of your eyes right now. On the road to learning to walk, how many times did you fall? I think it is safe to assume that for most people, the first time they tried to stand, let alone walk, they failed. In 2012, a study conducted by New York University found that in just one hour toddlers “averaged 17 falls” whilst discovering their walking skills during free play.
In education, it is critical that we remember that falling or failing is not a bad word, rather it is an essential element of the learning process. Let’s imagine if we didn’t get up and try again in our journey to walk – where would we be right now? Let’s go back to Rachel’s Tweet and the words of Indian Aerospace Scientist, Abdul Kalam, “If you fail, never give up because FAIL means “First Attempt In Learning”. I want to challenge you to model the learning process in your classroom. Celebrate, own and feel comfortable with every small fail in your classroom and share in the learning journey with your students.
As part of my work, I have the pleasure of working with Educators to develop their practice. Throughout the pandemic, a lot of my work focused on technology for Emergency Remote Teaching and development of teacher digital skills. I have so much respect for Teachers and am in awe of how we as a profession responded to meet student needs during ERT. This next piece is said with no judgement. Along this journey, I have experienced Teachers who are reluctant to try a new approach or tech tool in case it goes wrong. Teachers who shy away from technology because they don’t want to use a new tool until they have mastered it. Or Teachers who build a defensive wall with the line “my students wouldn’t be able to do that”, this is a line I will revisit. I am curious, are these three scenarios underpinned by the Teachers fear of failure in front of their students?
Recently, I was having a conversation with an Adult Literacy Tutor, who was experiencing a number of ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages) students asking for help with filling out forms. They were happily going way beyond their role to help, by sitting down with the student after class to help translate and complete the forms. Ever since, more students are asking for help with form filling. There is an opportunity for learning here. To foster independence, specifically to show the students how to translate the form for themselves. I suggested use of the free, Office Lens mobile app to translate the form. Wait for it… here comes the line… “the students wouldn’t be able to do that”.
I am going to make a bold statement from a place of positive intent. When we as Educators use the line, my students wouldn’t be able to do that, we are often projecting our own fears onto students and we are effectively disabling them. Or another way of looking at it is we are enabling them to rely on us or need support from the teacher.
Let’s take a look at using the Office Lens app to translate a form. Did I mention, it is available for free download on Apple and Android devices. The app has Immersive Reader built in. Which is very useful for students who struggle with reading or who need some help with translation. Also, very handy for teachers if you need to translate a menu on your holidays!
Back on the Twitter thread, Donal O’Reilly, PP Deputy Director of CSL (Centre for School Leadership) contributed to the conversation with the idea that ‘I succeed, or I learn.’ To close the loop on this post, I’m going to tweak Donal’s line to reflect our focus in this post ‘You achieve, or you learn,” or you fail over and over again in order to learn as you journey towards achievement.
If you take anything away from this post. Look for opportunities to foster independence in your students. Learn to feel comfortable even when you feel uncomfortable. Find and tap into the resilience that you had as a toddler learning to walk. ‘Teacher’ does not stand for ‘expert in everything’ even within the walls of your classroom. Do not fear failure in your classroom, embrace every small fail as an opportunity for learning. Wobble, fall, crawl and pick yourself back up! Create a safe space, model the learning process for your students and be the leader of learning in your classroom.
Adolph, K. E., Cole, W. G., Komati, M. et al, (2012) How Do You Learn to Walk? Thousands of Steps and Dozens of Falls per Day. New York University. Journal of Psychological Science 23(11) 1387–1394. DOI: 10.1177/0956797612446346