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5 ways to learn from failure when teaching primary

If your pupils go home at the end of the day and didn’t get anything wrong, then you didn’t do your job properly, says Robin Launder…

Robin Launder
by Robin Launder
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There’s a Japanese proverb which, when translated, means, “Fall down seven times, get up eight.”

I’ve seen it as a poster. I’ve seen it as a tattoo. And, with one extra but vital component, I’ve seen it embedded into the culture of a classroom – and when it’s there, it can make all the difference to the quality and the speed of the learning process.

So, what’s the extra component? It’s simply being open to feedback. In other words, find out why you are falling down in the first place.

So how do you embed this ‘learning from failure’ culture into your classroom? Here’s how.

1 | Talk it

Students need to understand that failure is in fact their best teacher. Failure gives honest and immediate feedback about how well they did. If they’re scared of making mistakes then they won’t try, and if they don’t try then they won’t learn. So they have to be prepared to fail, and be open to the feedback that comes from failure. Make sure your pupils understand that your classroom is a safe place for making those mistakes. No one’s going to laugh, no one’s going to put them down, no one’s going to give them a hard time. In fact, the only thing they’re going to be given is encouragement.

If this expectation is broken, if you hear a snigger or a put down, warmly but firmly challenge it. Remind students that mistakes are welcomed and expected. Communicate the message that in your classroom, you don’t send laughter; you send love.

2 | Own it

Make sure, too, that you, the teacher, own your part in the ‘learning from failure’ process. Tell your pupils that if they go home at the end of the day and didn’t get anything wrong, then that means that you didn’t do your job properly.

If that happens, they should let you know so you can learn from that mistake yourself and ensure that in the next lesson they’ll be given work that challenges them. The proof that it’s challenging is that it will cause them to make mistakes – if it doesn’t, then it’s not challenging work at all.

3 | Walk it

If students spot you making a mistake (and they will), don’t be defensive. In fact, be the opposite of defensive.

Tell them that you’re very happy they’ve spotted it because now you can rectify it, and that if they spot any future mistakes, they should point them out. You want to know because you want to make progress and learning from mistakes is the best way to do that.

If you try to minimise the mistake or pretend it didn’t happen, then what you’re actually communicating to your pupils is that – despite what you say to the contrary – you’re scared of making mistakes. And that message inhibits learning.

So, talk the talk and walk the walk.

4 | Design it

Design your lessons so that mistakes will inevitably happen. You do that by making the work difficult. As Professor Robert A Bjork says, difficulty is desirable.

But make sure it’s achievable difficulty – think full stretch and on tiptoes, but nevertheless still achievable.

5 | Reward it

The reward for making mistakes isn’t a sweet or gold star or letter home, nice though those things might be. No, the reward for making mistakes is progress.

It’s all those wonderful dopamine-induced feelings that come from hard-fought, never-give-up, ever-increasing mastery.

So, then, the best way to reward a pupil for getting a hard question right or for completing a difficult task is to give them an even harder question and an even more difficult task.

Why? Because it will lead to mistakes. Which will lead to progress. Which will lead to the warm glow of doing something better than they were once able to do. It’s a virtuous learning curve.

Not only that, but it will also generate buy-in to you, the teacher, while at the same time normalising that vital ‘learning from failure’ culture.

And if this culture is still tricky to embed? Well, you know what to do, don’t you? You fall down seven times and get up eight – and if that doesn’t work, you stand up nine times. And ten. And so on.

Robin Launder is the director of Behaviour Buddy, a company that specialises in evidence based CPD, including behaviour management CPD. He tweets at @behaviourbuddy.

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