In celebration of failure

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“Every teacher fails on a daily basis. If you are not failing you are just not paying attention because we fail all the time.”

Dylan Wiliam

When I first heard the quote above from Dylan Wiliam it was as if I had been finally set free. I have spent the majority of my career searching for my teaching Shangri-La: the ultimate lesson, the ultimate scheme-of-work, the ultimate piece of work, the ultimate questioning sequence… Funnily enough it has only been this academic year, the year that I have stepped up my search for perfection, that I have come to accept that in this profession the perfect is an illusion, a mirage in the desert. The quest will continue – it must – but in the comfort that the treasure trove will never be located. And how could it be? It never existed in the first place.

I have been beguiled in the past few months by the theory that expertise takes roughly 10,000 hours of deliberate practice – practice, that is, primarily focused on improvement. For teachers, this is about mindful, effortful concentration on the development of our daily practice so that our skill becomes automatic. It is pretty obvious that we will become better teachers by following this path. Yet it cannot be the full answer. A violinist can become an expert – deliberately practice a note enough times and you will, I am sure, master that note. Teaching is more complex. However skilfully we teach our lessons, the children in front of us will never respond with the consistency of musical instruments. Some will stay in tune, others will not. There is no such thing as success and failure in this job: every moment is tinged with both. We can become experts but we cannot master this profession.

If our lesson planning is not too rigid, we can respond to the unanticipated during lessons and redirect students as necessary – see my post on responsive differentiation. However, these decisions are taken in the spur of the moment. Perhaps the best way to genuinely respond to our students is through a process of critical reflection that feeds-forward into the planning of the next lesson or sequence of lessons. This reflection will be based on a wide range of factors including assessment. It is not humanly possible to mark every student’s book every lesson but there are many ways to ‘take the temperature’ during and after a lesson – if I know a class, I tend to find checking a few books across the ability range is usually a pretty accurate method.

Frustratingly, although the detailed knowledge we have built up of our students helps us to predict their response with some degree of prescience, we can never be sure how our plans will play out. That’s why I have never understood how you can fully plan a lesson before you have taught the lesson prior to it. It is natural that we should have fixed and clear long-term goals for our students. However, to successfully steer our students towards these goals our weekly and termly plans must have in-built flexibility.

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Take a lesson I taught this week for example. My Y8s were writing a poem inspired by Imtiaz Dharker’s Blessing. The idea was that we would model together the start of an example and, with a scaffold I had given them, they would write their own. Some could use the scaffold as a support, others were expected to borrow from Dharker’s techniques to create something a little more original. My job would be to sit at the computer writing my own version which I would stop to show the whole class intermittently so that it would a) act as an exemplar to prompt their own thinking and b) enable me to model my meta-cognitive thinking.

It sounds great written down, but, quite frankly, it did not work for all. The scaffold I had provided made the task too hard for some, and my lack of circulation meant that I was not able to ‘take the temperature’ and respond as I normally would. The lesson was flawed.

Today was take-two; I went back to the drawing board. I freed myself up so that I was able to intervene with individuals and I modified the scaffold. The results were much better, but still not quite where I had hoped. But then, when are our hopes ever fully fulfilled?

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The above example illustrates why my self-critical nature is very useful to me. I struggle to understand how the micro-planning of units of work weeks in advance, or, even worse, expecting all the teachers in a department to work from a pre-designated plan can lead to genuine success.

For me, reflection is the most valuable thing I do. However, I am aware that as with everything in this profession it has its limitations. I am aware that reflection relies on the impossible: the objectivity of our intuition. I am also aware that learning is invisible and defies an easy definition. Who is to say that those who struggled on the Blessing task learnt less than those who produced a lovely completed poem? I only have their written performance to inform my reflective process.

Be that as it may, thinking backwards and thinking forwards are such a vital part of our job. Inherently it is an individual, independent process. Yes, discussion and collaboration with our colleagues play an important role. (I love the fact that my school has introduced coaching to provide a whole-school structure that enables us to verbalise these internal processes.) Nevertheless, it remains true that the teacher occupies a solitary, lonely position – only we are privy to our hour-by-hour experiences in the classroom.

We must train ourselves not to respond in an emotionally negative way to our shortcomings otherwise our frustration will wear us down. Instead, we must learn to celebrate our failures and help our colleagues to feel confident in doing the same.

Watch Dylan Wiliam’s talk here:

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5 thoughts on “In celebration of failure

  1. What an excellent piece — I resonate with so many individual points that I cannot hit them all in a single comment.

    This post presents its author as a very mature, very savvy, very relational individual who knows both what, from the standpoint of a teaching professional, needs to be accomplished in a class, along with an intimate working knowledge (based on experience) of the students in the class.

    Thank you!

  2. Wow, this is an excellent summary of what it’s like to be a teacher who is truly concerned about his/her effect on learning. It all sounded so familiar…and I’ve been out of the classroom for ten years. Well said. -Amy

  3. Pingback: Your own tune in your own voice. | Thinking Inclusion – The IQM Blog

  4. Pingback: You win some, you lose some | Reflecting English

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