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Inside Teaching : June 2010
Inside Teaching | June 2010 SEE ME AFTERWARDS 50 Do you have a fear of failure? Chances are, you probably do, but there's every reason to embrace failure, as STEVE HOLDEN explains. GO AHEAD, MAKE A You've told yourself you'd never do it, but you find yourself talking over student noise. You mispronounce a word in a staff meeting and a colleague corrects you. You're working a maths example on the board, when a student asks, 'Shouldn't that 7 be a 9?' Mistakes: most of us hate making them, the sinking feeling of inadequacy. We worry that we've made ourselves look unprepared, unknowledgeable, stupid. At best, most of us react defensively; at worst, in our embarrassment and shame, we pretend we haven't made a mistake at all. The hard thing to remember, in the classroom or the staffroom, is that this fear of failure is itself a shame, because it's a lost opportunity. Getting things wrong is how we get things right. If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Failure precedes success. Consider, for example, the way civil or mechanical engineers pursue structural failures. Luckily for us, our bridges and the cars we drive over them have been tested for static failure and fatigue failure, so we're probably not going to encounter the kind of wave wobbles that occurred on the Volgograd Bridge in May. As it turns out, though, it's precisely because we rely on things probably being the way they are that we get some things wrong. It's called inductive reasoning -- aka guessing -- and it's one of the main ways we learn. Trouble is, it's also a reason we make mistakes. It's through inductive reasoning, for example, that the early language learner figures that you can use the -ed suffix to change tense: today I learn, talk and play but yesterday I learned, talked and played. Easy. You think? Not when thinked is actually thought, drinked is drank, and sleeped is slept. The failure, though, is a good thing: our use of inductive reasoning when we're early language learners helps us to handle a whole lot of grammar where the rule probably applies; then we're free to learn the exceptions to the -ed rule without, thankfully, having to memorise every verb in the English language. Put simply, we learn from our mistakes. I remember picking up a class mid-year, after a teacher left the school suddenly, to discover that the students hadn't exactly followed the curriculum. We would, I told the students, have to start from scratch. I had no idea how hard the next few lessons, some of the hardest I'd ever taken, were going to be. Why, I kept asking myself, were the students so unreceptive, resistant, even hostile? It wasn't my fault that the first half of the year had gone off the rails. I knew I'd made a mistake, but it took me a while to realise what it was, and a while longer to learn from it. It took several classes before I had the sense to put myself in the students' shoes, and then I began to understand why they were so resistant. Who was this guy breezing in and telling them they'd wasted their first semester and let's start over? More than a little humbled in my stupidity, I started mapping the work the students had done and the assessments they'd completed against the curriculum. There was, I realised, another way to come at this than by starting from scratch. But first, I realised, there was an apology to be offered.