Why we should celebrate Failure Fest

???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????So the bad news is: at IATEFL this year, they have abandoned pecha kucha night (boo!) The good news is they have replaced it with something I think sounds brilliant: “Failure Fest”, ie people talking about what they have learned through their teaching failures.

There are a couple of reasons why this strikes a chord with me. First, I’ve had some truly spectacular classroom failures (of which more in a future post!) and it’s fair to say that the lessons I learned from them stay with me. And I’m proud to say that I go on failing, professionally and personally (although hopefully not so spectacularly) on a daily basis, because “failure” is what drives learning. We would never talk about our students as “failing” because they haven’t produced a perfect utterance in English. We know from Selinker that this is part of their interlanguage, we know from Krashen and Vygotsky that trying to do something beyond their level of ability helps them move forward, we know just from our instinct as teachers that it’s ok for students to make mistakes, that making mistakes is good because it means they are pushing their boundaries, and because realising something has gone wrong can help fix things. So it’s ironic really that teachers don’t extend nearly so much compassion and understanding towards themselves, when they make mistakes in the classroom. OK, we might have learnt to (try to) look forward instead of back, to focus on “next time” rather than “should have” – but reflective post-lesson analysis is often, well, analytical – cold, somehow. I’d love it if we could recreate for ourselves some of the warmth, encouragement and positivity that we create for our students who are making mistakes but trying.

Another reason I like the idea of showcasing Failure Fest, is that conference sessions, teacher training input and in-house PD sessions so often seem to take the form of a knowledge gap: an expert with certain knowledge disseminates it to those without. That’s ok, I don’t have any problem with that per se. But what I like about Failure Fest is that it says: “I am human, just like you”. It focuses on our similarities rather than our differences. Finding a shared emotional experience creates a sense of solidarity, mutuality and possibility. Because we are alike – human – I can learn from your mistakes – and your achievements – as if they were my own. What is possible for you is also possible for me. No matter how qualified or experienced you are, we are more alike than different. Think about it: have you ever had a worry, feelings of self-doubt, anxiety about what the right thing to do is – then you find that someone has gone through, or is going through, the same thing as you? It is such a blessed, wonderful relief to know that you are not alone, even if you still don’t have all the answers.

This is a psychological reality. Learning through a shared personal experience has an emotional “stickiness” (to borrow a marketing term) that non-personal learning misses out on. As parents we know this: we tell stories that help children relate and integrate new information to their existing worldview. As teachers, we know this: we take care to personalise, and to try to find materials and topics that our learners will find engaging. I’m just not sure we do the same with each other on a professional level. Why is this? Perhaps it’s just not “professional” to show your human flaws. Perhaps we are conditioned to feel superior or inferior to others with different contexts, specialties, qualifications or experience. Perhaps it’s just human nature when in a group to try to make oneself look as strong as possible – even though, as a consequence, others may end up feeling small, isolated, or afraid to speak up.

Hand ReachingIf you are delivering a PD session, and you are asking people to jump a knowledge gap, some will and some won’t. Some will care and some won’t. Some will be listening and some will be texting. But if you are engaging people on a personal level, if you can find the meeting point between their experience and yours, you can bring them on a journey with you. Groups where everyone is trying consciously or subconsciously to outdo each other don’t feel good. But the groups that feel amazing are those where someone has spoken up – admitted weakness, asked a question, put out a hand to  others, and ended up giving everyone a voice. Because we are more alike than we are different.

Do you feel the same? 🙂

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26 responses

  1. Hi Sophia.
    Good points there! I am one of those speaking in the Failure Fest and I’ve been thinking why would anyone actually want to listen to my failures. I mean, what are the odds of my story being transferable? But you point out some good reasons. I’m happy I found read your post.
    Best
    Willy

    • Hi Willy,
      Thanks so much for commenting. I guess you can tell from the post that I would LOVE to hear your failures – I hope they will be recorded for posterity and put on the internet for those of us a million miles away from IATEFL 🙂 I’m sure it will be a great night – good luck, and can’t wait to hear about it!

    • Hi Mura,
      I remember you asking me about a year ago if I had a blog…Better late than never…And thanks for commenting! Yes, Willy and the others are wonderful for getting up there and sharing their stuff ups, and like you, I really hope it gets recorded and/or written up as I am desperate to hear the details! That failure report you found is also a fantastic real-life example of how positive it can be to change our attitude to failure and really embrace it! Reminds me of that famous (possibly apocryphal) Edison quote: “I have not failed 10,000 times. I have not failed once. I have successfully discovered 10,000 ways that will not work.”

  2. Sophia,

    What a great day to have off from work. I could sip my cup of coffee, laugh at my pile of studying, and slip into your first blog post. What a great start to your blog. As I read, I was kind of painfully reminded of my own first two presentations, when I tried to race through an hour worth of material in 20 minutes, never bothering to take the pulse of the audience. I’ve slowed down and taken some good advice from a mutual friend since then…actually, thanks Sophia, I think you just helped me find my next blog post.

    So glad to find you blogging. You’ve given me one more thing to look forward to this school year.

    Kevin

    • Hi Kevin,
      Thanks for the encouragement about the blog, it’s kind of a more angst-ridden process than I had realised, sending a post off into the world to fend for itself…Anyway, I’m glad you liked it…but I feel bad that it made you feel bad – that wasn’t my intention! Actually I’ve had a few presentation experiences somewhat similar to the one you describe…You live and learn, but since connecting with you and others in our PLN, I’ve really found a lot of those things that used to keep me awake at night, cringing at what I did “wrong” (sad, I know) are easier to let go of. You set a great example of honest self-reflection with your blog, and I’m looking forward to your next post, whatever it’s about 🙂

  3. Great first post, Sophia. As you say, failure is such an important part of learning that it really should be acknowledged, even celebrated, more. Failure Fest is definitely a good thing, and perhaps we should do more as reflective practitioners to use our failures as opportunities for learning. We also need to encourage our learners to do the same – post-task reflection activities are good for this.
    Anyway I look forward to reading more posts on your blog.
    Steve

  4. Thanks for commenting – really good to make contact with you as your blog is awesome! We’ve also been exploring a bit with DHELT over here (in Australia) and I think a trainer friend may just have delivered your own training session – hmm, will find out more! I definitely agree that failure can be celebrated and usefully so – did you see Mura’s link (above)? Thanks also for the reminder that we need to try to create reflective learners, not just reflective teachers. It’s all very well that we know “it’s ok to make mistakes” but that’s not a sentiment all students seem to share!

  5. Great first post and, hopefully, there will be more to come. We all fail now and then. Sometimes we realise that we could have planned our lesson better. It happens to me when I get so warmed up about a topic and plan a vivid discussion with my students but it turns out that they are not interested in the subject. Sometimes the students are so preoccupied with an upcoming test in another subject they simply cannot concentrate in class. It seems to me, at least such is my experience, that we, English teachers, are more introspective and willing to admit that we have failed than the teachers of other subjects. My colleagues usually put the blame on students. I believe that being honest to yourself and others is very important. After all, ‘to err is human’. And it does not matter how many times you have fallen. What matters is how many times you have got back on your feet.
    All the best,
    Gordana 🙂

    • Hi Gordana! I completely sympathise with those wonderfully planned, motivating lessons that die a death in the classroom, and I really like your positive attitude. Like you I believe that being honest to yourself and others is vital. Teachers who “blame” students for not learning (arghh!!!) are too busy making excuses instead of using reflection to help them better understand themselves, their students, and the organic context of the classroom. This is the only real failure. Thanks for your comment.

  6. Hi Sophia,
    I’m looking forward to this! and salute beforehand anyone brave and self-deprecating enough to present! We’ll look forward to hearing about spectacular failures and supreme embarrassment, of course, but what I’m really interested in is this: what factors caused the failure, how did you try to remedy it, and what came out of reflecting on the disaster later? It’s not the just event that is worth sharing, but definitely also the process.

    • Hi Jenny
      Thanks for reading and commenting. You’ve set out a good framework here for reflection on a classroom “failure” here; this is how we can turn it into something to learn from rather than just cringe at 🙂 Thank you!

  7. Hi Sophia

    I agree, this is a great idea! I think even better than Pecha Kucha, though that was entertaining last year. And your post sums it all up very nicely. 🙂

    Sharing failures as well as successes is something I agree we should do more of, so I’ll be there with bells on. Hope to meet you there!

    Laura

    • Lauraahaha, am stoked to see you here! Thanks for stopping by. Sadly I am about a far as you could possibly be from Liverpool, but I am hoping you and others will be tweeting up a storm on Thursday night when Failure Fest happens! Hope you are having a great time at IATEFL – enjoy!

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  9. Sophia,

    oh yeah! We are too hard on ourselves when we fail (at least I tend to be that way). It is difficult to think ‘next time’ instead of ‘should have’, however with time seems to be getting easier 🙂

    • Thanks for commenting miss m! I agree, it is REALLY hard to think about ‘next time’ rather than ‘should have’. Knowing it and doing it are two different things aren’t they…In some ways I think we have to ‘fake it to make it’, take the reflective angle even if secretly we feel terrible about whatever ‘failure’ occurred, and try to turn this way of thinking into a habit. I think blogs can really help with that. I really like yours, by the way, I hope you keep it up!

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  16. Well said. My dad once said, “You’re not the only one” a bunch if times to me when I was a ranting teenager. His words didn’t sink in for a while, but I’ve found that in just about every situation I find myself in, teaching or otherwise, someone else has been there as well. And knowing that has made getting by much, much easier.

    Mistakes are good and they’ll happen as a matter of course. Some matter more than others, but we can learn from them.

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