Failure, as we know, is a fundamental part of learning which I have explored elsewhere. Yet failure, in practice, is often used in learning to hinder rather than help learning. It too often becomes defined in practice as a deficit technique, rather than a formative feature of progress. Here’s seven examples of how failure can fail learners.
1. Language of failure
Far too much emphasis is put on final, summative assessment, at the expense of formative assessment, confusing and importing summative habits into formative processes. The summative language of ‘pass’ and ‘fail’ is a mutually exclusive opposition that makes little sense in formative assessment. We take a dualist attitude and transfer it, mistakenly, back across to the entire process of learning. Too many teachers and online learning programmes default to the language of failure, rather than the language of learning. The fact that you have yet to know or master something is a state of ‘not yet knowing’ not failure. Yet the red pen culture and lack of knowledge about feedback, deliberate practice, memory and the role of failure in all learning is endemic.
2. Language of gifted and talented
My heart sinks when I hear parents use these terms about their kids. Even worse, are schools and teachers, who should know better, using a whole raft of terms associated with these fixed ability terms. Attributing success to ‘talent’, ‘ability’ and being ‘gifted’ is disturbing from a head teacher or teacher. You don’t have to be a Dweck freak to realise how destructive this language is in learning. It fixes attributes and therefore demotes effort and practice. It also gives learners a get out clause. Even the learners who succeed with high marks stop at the pass mark and ignore the remainder. The rest, if they are branded as failures (not talented or gifted) will make less effort and many will drop out
3. Hands-up anyone
A good example of awful teaching practice is the ‘hand up anyone’ technique, beautifully exposed in Ferris Beuller “….anyone, anyone.”. The teacher asks a question. This is good as it forces the learners to try to recall the answer but only the ones who know the answer put their hands up and the rest feel deflated. The introverts are excluded, tehre's not enough time for true reflection. It makes no sense. The process of learning needs to be kept positive at this level, not some lazy ritual where people are embarrassed, even castigated for not yet knowing.
4. Whole task assessment
Rather than create, active, effortful learning experiences, where failure is part of the learning process, we set whole tasks and simply repeat those tasks. You don’t learn to write by simply writing, you learn hundreds, indeed thousands of small rules around spelling, sentence structures, punctuation, style and so on. It’s lots of tiny acts of failure and correction that lead to success. The ‘whole language’ movement, for example, led to decades of bad teaching and poor literacy, as it failed to recognise the role of failure in the learning process. Whole task teaching and assessment is the route to self-doubt and failure.
The ‘essay’ is a lazy and vastly overused form of assessment. A Professor of Pharmacology once complained to me that her University forced her to set essays for her Pharmacology students, which she found ridiculous. Smart students simply memorise essays for exams, so they are far from being an adequate form of summative assessment. Hand written essays encourage this as it is difficult to engage in critical writing, which always involves redrafting, structural change and rewriting. Waiting for weeks (the norm) to get a grade back (with scant feedback) on an essay, is a ridiculous form of formative assessment. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve come across parents writing essays for their kids at school and, unbelievably, University. Then there’s the simple fact that you can buy them. Encouragecheating and you’ll get cheats.
6. Marking as end-point
Unnecessary marking is another technique that confuses summative with formative assessment. Professor Black rightly criticises teachers for being over-zealous with marking, when they should be promoting learning. His advice is to drop marking during the formative learning as it does more harm than good. Let’s say a few get a pass by crossing some threshold, let’s say x%. Even with these learners this will act as an end point, leaving 100-x% of the knowledge or skills absent. That’s not good in healthcare, where that 100-x% can kill. It also demotivates those who ‘fail’, so that more damage is done to the whole cohort. For a more detailed account of why marking sucks, see here.
7. Deficit model
The education system is too often seen in terms of a deficit model, a dangerous conceit. Structurally it is layered like rock and the learner has to punch up through these layers while many fail to punch through at each stage. This deficit model, where the system is always failing, with failed schools and failed standards, pushes politicians and professionals towards a deficit model that defines the domain, policy and practice. The glass is always half empty as the language of failure is allowed to dominate. League tables, winners and losers , do little other than promote a culture of failure.
Failure is the end point for too many in this process. To promote and see ‘failure’, not as a means to an end (learning) but an end in itself, is to misunderstand its fundamental role in learning and memory. Sifting, sorting and ultimately abandonment, is to fail to understand the true joy of education and learning. For too many the end point is being branded as a failures. Turn this on its head and see failure as a state of becoming and you turn a fixed entity into a dynamic process and opportunity.