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Re-defining Failure in the Classroom

An interesting question caught my imagination from the book, Mindset by Carol Dweck. In the book she asks,” If you are somebody when you are successful, what are you when you are unsuccessful?”

As a society we worship success. All around us we see images of and hear about competitions, reality shows, ranks, success rates, making us internalise the idea that success and being ‘the first’ is the ultimate goal of an individual. It is hardly surprising therefore that children grow up fearing failure and attaching a huge amount of shame with it.There is nothing wrong or abnormal about the desire to excel, but my question is does that necessarily follow that failure is shameful?Is it possible for teachers to redefine failure as a necessary step to learning? If so, how can they do that in their classrooms?

Yes, I think it’s possible. In small but significant ways teachers can convey to students that failure is not something to be ashamed of; rather it is an opportunity given for learning to happen.

1. A space where students are encouraged to say, “I don’t know”.

Imagine a classroom, where after completing a unit, the teacher encourages students who did not understand the topic to raise their hands rather than those who understood. The teacher here is consciously creating a culture where students are not ashamed to say that they don’t know; that they have failed to understand something and do not feel afraid to ask. This might seem a small gesture, but I think it will help students to look at failure as an opportunity to learn rather than something to hide.

2. Re-defining assessments to promote learning over performance.

Secondly, we can redefine failure by how we assess the students. If assessments focus more on comments than on numbers(marks), students are encouraged to learn from the mistakes made or suggestions given rather than get fixated about the marks they have obtained. Human beings get preoccupied by marks: so a 7/10 will be remembered by the student more deeply than any comment. If frequent formative assessments are carried out where students are given detailed feedback about their work, students are prompted to look at their ‘mistakes’ in a positive way and learn from them.

3. Being mindful of the words we use in the classroom.

Last but not least, the questions that the teacher asks and the language she uses go a long way in creating an environment where students are confident to talk about mistakes, failures and internalize the idea that failure is merely an opportunity to learn. If the teacher deliberately asks open-ended questions, giving students the opportunity to think and come up with diverse responses, the stigma of giving the ‘wrong answer’ disappears. When the teacher encourages conversations around mistakes made and how these mistakes have prompted a further inquiry into the topic, the atmosphere is one of learning and growth.

I would like to end by talking of a teacher who would routinely tell her students during assessments, “ What are we here for? We are here to learn. I hope you all are going to make at least one mistake in your tests because mistakes are nothing but opportunities to learn.”

If all teachers can welcome mistakes in classrooms, surely we can redefine and reimagine failure in our learning environments.

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