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? 🙂