• Kate

Teaching to fail: Raising resilience in the classroom

I recently came across a 2010 article by Warwick Mansell on the TES website, explaining how an increase in "spoon-feeding" students in order to pass examinations is bringing about a rise in young people unable to cope with failure: (https://www.tes.com/news/spoonfed-students-lack-confidence-oxbridge) His research cites rising numbers of students requiring counselling services at the UK's top universities (Oxford and Cambridge).

As a Cambridge graduate myself, and tutor/mentor to the next generation of university attendees, it got me thinking. Am I doing enough to prepare my young students for the academic rigours of university and, beyond this, the big bad real world? Am I just "teaching for the test", or am I helping them to realise the value of learning as an act in itself? Am I showing them that getting things right all the time is the best way, or that making mistakes can be helpful?

At the place where I started my teaching career, a private co-educational school in Glasgow, resilience is listed among its core values, along with honesty, independence, curiosity, creativity and compassion. It is seen as equally important and, when reading Mansell's article and seeing the impact that a lack of resilience can have on young people's mental health at university, I can see why. Of course it is vital to send children into the world as honest and compassionate people (for the sake of themselves as well as others), but resilience is what will help them to face the sometimes cruel and highly competitive world of higher education and, eventually, employment.

Comedian Ricky Gervais is quoted as saying "The struggle itself is the reward," and I tried to weave that into how I taught my lessons. In Glasgow, I taught mostly Latin and Ancient Greek, notoriously rigorous academic subjects. Tempting as it was to lead my classes straight to the answers, and to flash up the correct solutions on the board when they were moaning and groaning that they did not understand, I fought hard to stand my ground. Students tussled with the perfect passive participle, mixed up all-too-similar Ancient Greek vocabulary and spent hours going over the same lines of Virgil's Aeneid. Yet their triumphant grins when they finally understood something, or their ability to explain a previously misunderstood concept in their own words spoke volumes. There is a reward for the struggle. And the reward is resilience. They realised that it was difficult, but they got up and tried again. After all, school is about much more than just the examinations which students will sit at the end of it; there is a life for them after school, and the lessons they learn in the classroom can help to shape their experience beyond those four familiar walls.

One quotation from Mansell's article stuck with me. It comes from Alan Percy, clinical director of Oxford University's counselling service, who says: "It's almost as if, if they do not know something immediately they feel as though they are failing." This strikes a chord with me, as I think it sums up all too accurately how a lot of my students react when they get something wrong. It is written on their faces: they feel they have failed. Some start almost every verbal answer with "Maybe..." or "Perhaps...", as if they are scared that a more direct response might reflect badly on them if it is incorrect. Particularly where my lessons are one-on-one, and the pressure to answer is felt even more greatly by the single student, I encourage my students to realise that every answer is a good answer. If it is right, great. If it is wrong, also great - let's use that mistake or lack of understanding to guide us in our learning.

I am by no means the resilience expert. In my own learning, I prefer to get things right the first time (I am frustrated with myself that I am not fluent in Dutch yet, having only moved here in July 2018). But any article or study which shows that students are suffering, mental health wise, as a result of their classroom experiences sets alarm bells ringing in this teacher's head of mine. So, here follow a few ideas (mine and those borrowed from others) about how we might teach our children to fail:

  • Have a "mistake of the week" - one mistake is emphasised for its good points i.e. what can be learned from it. This can be adapted to a "mistake of the lesson" if children are seen just once a week (as is the case with some of my students). I try to show them that, if everything went perfectly the first time, there would be no opportunity for growth.

  • Mark an equal number (or even greater number) of positive comments on a piece of written work, versus negative comments or corrections. I make my praise extra clear by highlighting things which I really liked in their answer in a bright and happy colour. I also don't label any of my marking as "corrections", or "negative comments", but instead add "improvements" to their writing where necessary.

  • Where the subject allows, I often tell students that there is no right or wrong answer. Of course if a student writes "they is" instead of "they are", I'm going to correct them, but when it comes to looser, open-ended questions regarding text analysis or characterisation, I want them to feel free to voice their opinion, without worrying about it being wrong. So many times students are unwilling just to go for it, and this holds them back from making progress. I would much rather see a student feel uninhibited by right and wrong, take a stab at the correct answer, and move forward from that point. Worrying about correctness only leads to stagnation in a student's thoughts, and slows up the teaching process as well.

  • In most cases, I let my students come to the answer themselves. I let them see that it will not just be served to them on a plate. In life, that's not how it goes, so why should it be in the classroom? I remember occasions at school myself when I was spoon-fed and, while it might have felt good (and easy) at the time, it didn't feel half as rewarding as the times when teachers let me sit, think and work it out for myself. Remembering those moments, I know what Ricky Gervais meant: my struggle was my reward.

  • I set an example of resilience to my students and classes. Sometimes, I don't pre-prepare certain passages of text or Verbal Reasoning problems, and I let the students work alongside me. They see that sometimes I can get mixed up, or misunderstand something (to their excitement - even a TEACHER gets it wrong!) But this does not deter me, and I let them witness that first-hand. I also try to be a role model for lifelong learning. I have not become a teacher because I know everything I need to know. I am happy to listen to their suggestions, read books or articles they recommend and learn from them in turn. I also regularly tell them about my struggles with learning Dutch, so that they can see resilience in action.

I realise that what happens in the classroom is only part of the problem and solution to the rising number of students seeking counselling services at university. There are many other factors at play which affect student mental health, and a lot of these are out of our reach as teachers. But, if we can help in any small way to prepare students for life outside of our classrooms, then, as far as I'm concerned, their failure is a great success.

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