Thursday, 17 July 2014

Embracing failure at the student & staff level

1) Why I’ve been trying to create a culture of failure in my classroom
2) What’s a ‘pre-mortem’ and how could it help improve teacher-effectiveness?

1)  Embracing failure at the student level

During an interview with Thomas Edison before his successful invention of the light bulb he said: “I have not failed 10,000 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 10,000 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work.”

I’ve had my new classes for a couple of weeks now and all of them are able to finish off some of my sentences. This has in the past disconcerted me. In China after a term two of the boys at the back of one of my classes gained the confidence to interrupt me, as I was about to start an activity. “Ok, let’s go for it!” Tony and Never (they chose their own Western names) chorused before I could get the words out. I left the lesson trying to convince myself “I don’t say that all the time?” In Spain my students always seemed to walk between lessons painfully slowly in the heat of the midday sun. I soon began to overhear what sounded like “Mr Hurry up”. In France it was the other way round - it was me always getting caught slightly off-guard by the calls of my primary school children whenever I got out my ‘Excellent effort’ stamps. “Tampon, tampon” they used to call (tampon being the French word for rubber stamp.) In Uganda it was “Ok, let’s sing” – our students were always ready to stand up and sing; even when it was an increasingly lyrically-challenged attempt to shoehorn Maths into simple tunes such as ‘Frère Jacques, Frère Jacques’ which became ‘mean is average, mean is average’ (complete with hand gestures).

However I’ve started to try and embrace my apparent verbal predictability. “What don’t I mind?” I’ll ask before starting an activity, “if we make mistakes” will come back the response. “What do I want to see?” “Evidence of effort” the students reply.

To reinforce this I occasionally refer to the ‘quote of the week’ board (see pic. above) on the wall at the front of my classroom that invariably has a quote along the lines of “take risks, make mistakes’ – anon. “You only regret the things you don’t do” – anon. “Success always starts with failure” – anon. “A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new” – Einstein.

I also regularly use mini-WBs in my lessons, not simply because they are a fantastic, quick AfL tool but because students are often uneasy about making lots of mistakes in their own books. Using mini-WBs removes this anxiety, as they know there’ll be no permanent record of their failures. Sure enough, over recent lessons I have started to see fewer and fewer empty whiteboards being held up.

I have no evidence to show that my students use mini-WBs a lot in my lessons. However, my department does spend a surprising amount on student whiteboard pens.

I’m always curious to learn how ideas translate across subjects. It was great to read LearningSpy’s blog on marking, where he discussed encouraging students to think of writing as drafting: “I have started referring to writing as ‘drafting’, as in: ‘I want you to draft an article on…’ This then encourages re-drafting.”
“I can accept failure, everyone fails at something. But I can't accept not trying.” - Michael Jordan.
To reinforce this classroom culture I only reward effort (see pic. below) and I start/end each lesson by getting students to write down one Maths-related success and one target from their lesson.


2)  The Pre-mortem – embracing failure at the staff level


It’s very nearly the end of another academic year and so I’m sure like many teachers, aside from occasionally daydreaming about the summer holidays we will be involved in completing school/departmental improvement plans and writing performance appraisal targets for next year. There is still much uncertainty and discussion surrounding the topic of performance-related pay but it is clear that the ritual of meeting for performance appraisal whereby staff set their targets with renewed enthusiasm at the beginning of each year and are reminded with a wry smile at the end of the year what their targets were, may be far less care-free in the near future. I have often questioned the effectiveness of such meetings, however once the year has started there always seems to be more pressing things to do than log on to a performance management system and ‘upload evidence’.

I’m always wary of well-meaning attempts to ‘reinvent the wheel’ and am far more comfortable discussing what teaching may be able to learn/adapt from other industries. It was with this in mind that I pitched the idea of the ‘pre-mortem’ to my head of department.
While many institutions conduct a post-mortem to examine why a given project has failed, Klein walks us through an exercise that can spot potential failures before things have gone wrong.”

Why a pre-mortem?

When we ask close colleagues for feedback they often avoid the negative. People are usually way too over confident at the beginning of a new project. The pre-mortem aims to temper this. A ‘pre-mortem’ is a technique aimed at freeing people who might otherwise feel that they may not look like a ‘team player’.

“During a ‘pre-mortem’ the demand characteristic becomes: show me how smart/experienced/clever you are by identifying things that we need to worry about.

During a postmortem - everyone benefits from the knowledge gained via the process except the patient (they're dead).”

The aim is to run through the process to find out what might go wrong before it goes wrong/the patient (project/product) dies.

Example dialogue

We're 3 months into the 6 months. It's obvious the project has failed.

There's no doubt about it. It can't succeed. 6 months later we don't want to talk about it. We don't even make eye contact. It's that painful.”

“Now, for the next 2 minutes. I want each of you to write down why this project had failed. We know it failed. No doubt about it. Write down all the reasons.”


        “1 item from each person's list - given to a catalogue of all the ways the project might fail.

        Now go round the room and each give one way/thing you could do to help the project/hadn't thought of before to try to make it more successful.”

I am, for the first time genuinely excited as we get together this week to complete our departmental improvement for us to be asked in advance to use our talents and experience to discuss why a project may fail and more importantly what we could do to ensure it doesn’t.

I’ll write a comment below the blog at the end of the week to let you know how we get on.


For anyone interested in reading about the research behind well-known success stories:


Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice - Matthew Syed

Outliers: The Story of Success - Malcolm Gladwell

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success - Carol Dweck

1 comment:

  1. We ran our ‘pre-mortem’ exercise on Tuesday to coincide with the writing of our Dept. Improvement Plan. (DIP). Below is a free-flow summary of our discussion. The comments are not necessarily representative of the whole dept.

    “Six months/a year down the line we realise it’s completely failed. We haven’t achieved any of the things we set out to in our DIP. Why?”

    • We don’t review/track it – there always seems to be something more important to do
    • responsibilities not linked to others outside of the Head of Dept. and Key Stage Leaders – no explicit development opportunities for colleagues
    • the values & beliefs behind it are not clear and therefore we don’t value it
    • work/book trawls only take place once a year and no formal structure of when it will take place or when to share findings with dept.
    • learning walks – we have an ‘open door policy’ but it very rarely happens and very few colleagues take part. Good practice not shared
    • lack of structure e.g. expected start & completion dates not specified
    • the situation/ dept. priorities change over the year
    • too much waffle/too ambiguous
    • a sense of urgency when writing it – it takes ages and we have other things that need to be completed before Sept.
    • unsure of the extent to which it is discussed and monitored beyond the dept.

    “How could we have avoided the failures?”

    • write this year’s Dept. Improvement Plan with the leadership and skills development goals of colleagues in mind (including potential SchooliP targets) to ensure that colleagues are given meaningful developmental roles within the DIP
    • Ensure that everyone contributes and agrees on DIP content
    • Discuss progress at the new 30 min. weekly Head of Dept. & KSLs meeting. KSLs to disseminate information relevant to their Key Stage
    • print a copy of the DIP and have it displayed in the shared office
    • use the new A3 size ‘Maths Leadership & Dept. Development Overview’ – an A3 page that has the roles of each colleague laid out across the year -
    • pass round the A3 Maths LDD overview each half-term during a meeting and discuss progress/changes briefly so that all are aware of each others’ roles
    • each KSL is responsible for monitoring & supporting the development goals of three colleagues
    • Keep the ‘open doors’ observation culture but set aside two weeks each half term where colleagues will be actively encouraged to informally, briefly observe anyone in the dept. to identify and share strengths (surplus model)
    • ‘Maths on Tour’ (M.O.T.). As part of developing colleagues and the dept. but not ‘reinventing the wheel’ one colleague will be responsible for liaising with other departments to arrange for members of the Maths dept. to individually go and informally sit in on other dept. meetings and feedback to Maths on areas of best practice that we could learn from.