Tag Archives: failure

The F-Word

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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.

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Filed under Learning Log, Reflection

Choking or Panicking?

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I’m a fan of Malcolm Gladwell‘s writing. Last night I read his article The Art of Failure where he distinguishes between panicking and choking. In short, people who panic stop thinking; people who choke over-think and lose the use of internalized skills. Both can result in failure, but choking happens to people with developed skills. Gladwell uses the example of a professional tennis player who honed her skills through years of practice in order to internalize the complex skills of touch and ball control. However, in a pressure situation, over-thinking (choking) shuts down the hard-earned instincts of ball control and causes a regression to the more novice practice of consciously thinking about shots. The tennis player loses her touch. Choking happens to skilled people and is largely triggered by the context or audience of the performance.

Near the end of the essay Gladwell reminds readers that a professional tennis player can’t change the context of his/her performance, but in many other areas of life, context and audience can be adapted to facilitate better performance.

“Choking is a central part of the drama of athletic competition, because the spectators have to be there–and the ability to overcome the pressure of the spectators is part of what it means to be a champion. But the same ruthless inflexibility need not govern the rest of our lives. We have to learn that sometimes a poor performance reflects not the innate ability of the performer but the complexion of the audience; and that sometimes a poor test score is the sign not of a poor student but of a good one.” –Malcolm Gladwell

The quote begs the question, “What is the complexion of the audience in my classroom?” The article was an excellent reminder to be vigilant about creating environments that allow students to showcase their talent and knowledge effectively. When my instinct tells me that a student choked, I need to reflect on the context and help him/her find another way to make their learning visible. How do you help create contexts of success for your students?

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