Celebrating Failures, Humanizing Success in the Classroom

The world of education has long celebrated those who get the perfect scores and the highest academic awards. We rejoice and wonder in awe when we come across kid geniuses, often telling ourselves, that they will become the future Einstein or any other famous scientist and intellectuals. These kinds of remarks often put on a big expectation on kids. We expect them to get the highest grades, to always and be the first to recite in class, and of course, not to commit any mistakes because well, they are smart or genius. Medals and ribbons are given out to honour these students. One would always find their names on the list of honors.

 

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Schools often miss the point of why we celebrate success of students in the classroom. It’s not because these are kids are purely talented or born genius. Maybe, it’s because they strived hard and spent much time to practice and master the skills they are learning in the classroom. Maybe, it’s the fact that behind those great grades are countless mistakes that helped them learn in a much personal, engaging, and relevant way.

What if we, teachers and students, celebrate failures and mistakes committed for the sake of learning? What if we say “it’s ok, you did your best” or “it’s alright, you gave much effort” instead of simply saying, “that’s wrong” so that our students would not feel bad about their mistakes and instead, have the confidence to try learning for the better again? What if we make our classrooms safe places to explore, to fail, and to become successful?

Experience, the Best Teacher?

We often say experience is the best teacher. However, the way we see and do learning and teaching in the classroom say otherwise. There is only one experience, from the introduction up to the end of the lesson, and students are expected to have perfected the skills in that one experience. There is neither room for mistakes or failures, making sense and learning from one’s mistakes, clarification nor second chance.

Even our grading systems show how we focus on deducting points due to incorrect answers. We focus so much on the deduction that we forget to give relevant feedback. Some teachers would just write “-1 or -2” and a few feedback such as “Explain more.” We forget to focus on giving feedback that would help learners firm up or correct the skills or ideas we want them to learn.

Risk-taking is also an important aspect in promoting growth mindset. Students tend to shy away from taking risks because they are very well aware of the consequences, which normally point to point deductions, comparisons to others who have done well, or even simply, being ignored because another student had done better. Yet, risk-taking is needed in the real world. Indeed, there are consequences for the decisions we risk in real life and some of them can be really difficult to handle. Giving space or opportunities for risk-taking in the classroom does not aim for the students to perfect the act of taking risks so that there will be no mistakes or that the risk taken would always equate to success. We are actually letting them learn how to navigate the consequences so that they won’t get stuck on the mistakes and move on to do something better about it. Some students who have neither taken risk nor failed in the classroom find it difficult to manage the consequences of failures in the real world, which often result to some emotional challenges or issues that affect one’s well-being.

More than Words: Promoting Growth Mindset

What if we focus more on the growth that happens? What if we focus on the process and the journey more than the destination?

Promoting growth mindset needs to go beyond using kinds and encouraging words. These are helpful as they can encourage students. We can always tell them to do better and not to lose faith or not to give up.

However, we also need to design and to align all areas or aspects of learning to support growth mindset. For example, learning activities should give time for students to explore, to work with others, and to always go back and reflect on what they are learning. Reflective self-regulation skills should have a place in the classroom because these skills enable students to be aware of their strengths, weaknesses, and areas to improve on.

Rubrics that guide students to develop and master skills can be used instead of simply using a flat numerical grading that lacks explanation or descriptors. Better, relevant, and meaningful feedback should be given so that students are guided on what to improve on.

Teachers can also model growth mindset. We also commit mistakes in the classroom. Every once in a while, when we catch ourselves committing some mistakes, we can use these opportunities to tell our students that we too commit mistakes and that we use them to become better teachers to them.

We can also ask our students to mentor each other. Mentoring is about working together and becoming comfortable to receive and give feedback to each other. Having a mentor or a peer whom one can trust and is comfortable with allows students to understand and see themselves through the feedback of the other person.

Last, simply celebrate failure together. Celebrate small wins together. Celebrate every bit of learning together.

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