Students should fail occasionally and succeed often. One of the great challenges of building a productive and inspiring classroom environment is finding the right balance between success and failure. If students get everything right all the time, then they will feel great about themselves but almost certainly are not being stretched enough or learning the resilience that comes with occasional failures. If students can’t get anything right, then the classroom becomes an incredibly alienating place.
Failure might not be the best word. As an English teacher I want students to be willing to be wrong. In fact, I probably don’t want them to think in terms of being right or wrong. An excellent English student isn’t one who gets all the answers ‘right’; an excellent English student is one who can creatively and convincingly support their interpretations in discussion and in writing. Giving students the confidence to do this is one of the primary responsibilities of a teacher. This is where finding an equilibrium between success and ‘failure’ becomes so important.
In Barak Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction: Research-Based Strategies That All Teachers Should Know (2012), he quotes research which “suggests that the optimal success rate for fostering student achievement appears to be about 80%”. What this means in practice is guiding students in initial instruction, repeated low stakes quizzing of key content, and reinforcing core skills (such as close analysis, convincing exploration of context, fluency of expression, etc). This is also where an acceptable level of ‘failure’ can be productive. Correcting or challenging a student who ‘fails’ to demonstrate a core skill (by not offering supporting evidence, for example) sets high expectations of the whole group. If this is all done well by the teacher, then students are far more likely to tackle difficult tasks robustly. Rosenshine refers to this as “mastery learning”. Students should not be asked to move on to a new topic or skill until they can confidently display “mastery” of the previous unit.
What might this mean in an English lesson? Let’s say, for example, that a class is approaching a new scene in the Shakespeare play they are studying. Students may begin by reading the scene through as a class. The teacher may then clarify any questions about language and offer a short introduction to a particular character’s development in that scene. The teacher can explore and reinforce the students’ understanding of that character’s role in earlier scenes through low stakes quizzing or questioning. Students could be encouraged to find a single quotation to support a statement about the character’s actions or motivations in the scene of focus. Two or three of those quotations could be analysed together as a class (each student preparing their own analysis, on a mini whiteboard perhaps, to encourage active participation) to model the core skill. Once all of that is achieved, and students have enjoyed multiple ‘successes’ throughout the lesson, they are much better equipped to answer a higher-order analytical question or to write a paragraph exploring that character’s dramatic or thematic purpose. As Rosenshine summarises, it is “easier to solve new problems when one has a rich, well-connected body of knowledge”. Students are more likely to be willing to be wrong, or to attempt more difficult problems, if they are confident they have the tools to attempt the task and have succeeded at each foundational stage of the learning.
A ‘failure’ shouldn’t be a problem unless it is followed by successive ones. Students will learn from the odd mistake. If the right balance can be struck in the classroom, then we develop young people who are resilient, who respond positively to feedback, are self-reflective, and who understand the benefit of being prepared.