The F-Word

Embed from Getty Images

I’m talking about failure. Failure has become quite the educational buzzword these days. Articles, research journals, and blogposts all tout the need for failure as part of the learning process. I’d argue that most people mean “mistake” instead of “failure,” but that is an argument for another day. I’d just like to say that failure–necessary or not–is no fun.

One of my PD goals this year is to implement an improved standards-based assessment system into my Grade 12 English class. While I still believe in the idea, I have failed in a few ways during the process so far.

Communication has been a failure. It took me an embarrassingly long time to communicate the idea to students. My reporting of their progress was weak. I developed a pretty helpful grade book to keep track of student learning, but I was unable to adequately share that grade book with students and parents.

The structure let down a significant chunk of students in the class. About a third of the students in the class embraced the idea of building their own reading/writing portfolio and followed through with managing and completing the task. However, while the middle third eventually caught on, the bottom third floundered and produced very little. Upon reflection I think the top third already had the required academic and life skills necessary to manage and complete a long-term project, and I failed to scaffold instruction for the rest of the class, many of whom need smaller stages that would allow them to recognize the necessary skills and sometimes fail to execute them without jeopardizing the entire big picture.

I failed in execution. The heart and soul of this idea is that the teacher can spend 30 to 45 minutes per class in one-on-one conversation/instruction with students, giving immediate feedback and allowing students to articulate their learning. I accomplished this less than half as much as I would have liked as I tried to wrestle with the two failures mentioned above. It took me so long to communicate the big picture at the beginning of the course, that I didn’t firmly set up the necessary culture of conversation and conferencing.

I share all this because too often teachers feel isolated in their individual classrooms and that they are the only one struggling to improve. Certainly this post focuses on the negative, and in the middle of the semester I felt the weight of my shortcomings, but with the support of some amazing colleagues, I am past the negative. I can recognize some of the successes, and I have started to develop solutions that will prevent the same type of failure from happening again (or least they will happen to a lesser degree). I strongly believe this is professional learning (PD if you will). I’ll blog about my developing solutions as they…well, develop.



Filed under Learning Log, Reflection

7 responses to “The F-Word

  1. Keep it up. Your “failure” is only the first steps towards success. The issue with many “progressive” ideas is that we don’t live in an ideal world that the educational researchers assume we live in. Growth mindset and standards based grading, among others, has the enemy of time associated with it. The systemic issue of grouping students by their birth dates and having one year to complete everything is outdated and unrealistic.

    • Thank you for the encouragement, Albert. It is too bad that the system sees “date of manufacture” as one of the most important pieces of information about students.

      I am embracing the process and determined to see it through thanks to a vibrant community of educators who teach next door and around the world.

      Thanks again,


  2. Karen

    I truly appreciate your genuine reflection here. While I know your focus is on standards based grading, I think you make an important point about instruction.
    In your post you write about the “top third [who] already had the required academic and life skills necessary to manage and complete a long-term project” and then “the rest of the class, many of whom need smaller stages.” This year I am teaching heterogeneously grouped senior level classes, and I too struggle with scaffolding to meet the needs of diverse learners. We have to consider how we can scaffold instruction to meet all learners. And sometimes, using the upper third to help the lower third can be beneficial, particularly with a writer’s workshop. Once students know how to ask the right questions about reading and writing, they can challenge one another and help one another grow. This way students are getting the immediate formative feedback need to learn., and you will be able to have the discussions you want.
    Keep up your work and know that you are making a difference.

    • Thank you for taking the time to respond and encourage, Karen. I’m thrilled that you noticed the lines about the top third and the need for scaffolding. They are only a few lines, but a powerful and motivating reminder for me about where and how to focus my planning. Your recognition helped further underline that for me and fuels my determination (something that can be in short supply come mid-winter).

      I also appreciate the suggestion for getting more student interaction while simultaneously freeing up more time for 1:1 teacher:student conversation. I’m getting pumped about taking the next steps next week in the new semester.

      Blessings on your semester.

  3. Hello Scott,
    It is always refreshing to read a Scott blog – raw and honest as always. I really admire what you’re trying to do with assessment and I, too, believe it such a process, but I’m clueless as to how to monitor, record, etc…. So watching you push past the conventional and the simple is a journey I’ll watch with eager wonder and hope to learn from you – both the struggles and the successes. Keep up the challenging work!

    • Pamela! Good to hear from you–kind and generous as always.

      Thanks for helping motivate me to keep going. Blogging seems to slip down my to-do list, but I’m always better for having posted. It clears my head and heart, allowing me to learn as I type, and each time I wonder, “Why don’t I do this more often?” If I can be of any service to others along the way, I’m thrilled.

      On that note, you may be interested to hear that I just picked up a copy of Write Beside Them thanks to your blog recommendation. I trust it will help me improve the communication I discuss in this post and shorten my feedback loops.

      Good semester to you.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s