Failure is NOT an option. I think that our collective vision would be a school in which that was true. We all aspire to have classrooms full of students who are motivated and committed and do well. We all aspire to be that teacher-the one that doesn’t have any behavioural problems, who the kids quote when they become famous, who reaches every student (I think I saw a made-for-TV movie about that teacher).
But it is hard. Sometimes the kids didn’t see the movie. Some fight us at every turn. Home life might not be conducive to school attendance. There may be mental health issues or behaviours that disrupt the learning processes. Our classes have students with learning disabilities and giftedness; shy students and overt students; calm students and students with ADHD. By middle school some of our students are discouraged and apathetic about school.
But we still desire to be that teacher, that school where failure is not an option.
Here are some school practices that may lead towards a “Failure is not an option” environment:
- Recursive/spiralling teaching practice allows us to return to key concepts many times over the course of the year. We don’t expect students to “get” it the first time around but give them many opportunities to master key concepts.
- Multiple entry points into learning invite students into the learning. Students are more successful when they start the learning at a comfortable place instead of one that is too hard or too easy.
- Student choice in activities and learning allows for greater engagement. Students can choose their novel, choose the writing topic, choose the geography inquiry, choose their tech build, choose how to express themselves in art, choose chrome books or pencils, etc. Students are more likely to demonstrate grit and determination to succeed when they are engaged in the task.
- On-going formative assessment helps students to get it right, as they are learning. Teaching is not about completing the task; it is about learning the stuff. Formative assessment ensures that students are learning the stuff. There’s nothing worse that working hard on something only to find it wasn’t right after all. Because we give feedback during the learning, our students don’t end up in a situation where they didn’t even know they weren’t doing it right.
- Scaffolding learning through models, exemplars, anchor charts and checklists allows students to know the expectations before they start. Learning is not a mystery. Systematic use of guided learning with the whole class and in small groups ensures that students move in the right direction and know the learning goals and success criteria (it isn’t about posting them on the board).
- A responsive special education model ensures that our most vulnerable students are tracked and supported. It is not the responsibility of one person but of all the teachers involved with the student. A collective understanding of the unique needs of some of our students allows for modifications and accommodations to happen seamlessly. A responsive and proactive use of EAs and the CYW means that we avoid the crisis – most of the time.
- Grading practices that are fair and about learning not judging. If it is important enough for us to teach it then it is important enough for them to learn it. Learning the stuff doesn’t mean that a failing or low grade is ok. We have to allow and insist upon retakes and do overs. We have to give students more opportunities to learn. We have to provide many chances to try it out before we give the grade.
When we think about a “failure is NOT an option” school environment, we have to think about how do we design our practice for student success. It would be nice to think that our belief in “failure is NOT an option” would be enough–maybe a poster or two. It is easy as teachers to blame kids for being unmotivated and disinterested. But, it is really about how we design our instructional practices so that students are motivated and successful.