Failure is a word and a concept that our students often fear. In today’s society, with its focus on success, celebrity, fame and wealth, failure is linked with a sense of not being good enough. But actually, failure is a hugely important part of learning. By failing, we see where we need to improve. As the inventor and entrepreneur Thomas Edison said, ‘I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.’
Those students who always perform well, who always get top scores in their tests, are often the ones who find failure most difficult to cope with. They see the failure as a reflection of their lack of ability. But it is the attitude to failure that can turn around a learning experience. We need to help our students to see failure as a motivation for improvement. The theory of Growth Mindset is about our belief in our ability to improve. Instead of thinking, ‘I’ve failed at this. Therefore, I’m no good at it. I’m going to give up.’, we want our students to think, ‘I’ve failed at this. How can I get better?’
We can apply this thinking to our own teaching as well as helping students to apply it to their learning. If your lesson doesn’t go well; if students seem uninterested or disengaged; rather than falling into the negative trap of thinking I’m a bad teacher; set yourself the challenge of thinking; What went wrong today and how can I make it better next time? Start to see failure as an opportunity to learn, develop and improve.
Even young students, with low levels of English, can benefit from learning about Growth Mindset. In Impact Foundation, we follow the story of chess champion Josh Waitzkin, who later also became a champion in Tai Chi and a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
‘Josh is a great example of ‘growth mindset’. He doesn’t believe that he is naturally good at one special thing. He tries to learn new things. He doesn’t always succeed immediately, but he is very hard-working. He thinks that it is good to fail sometimes because it makes you try harder.’
After reading about Josh and the theory of Growth Mindset, we ask students to share ideas about how they can improve in school subjects which they find challenging.
Outside of the EFL classroom, I see Growth Mindset working in a very different context. I help out at a local primary school, running a beginner recorder club for 7-8 year-olds. Whenever we start a new year and I have a new set of students, there are some children who immediately hold their recorder correctly; blow into it with control and have the co-ordination to move their fingers and produce the first few notes. There are other children who struggle at first to understand how to place their hands and fingers and make a terrible noise when they start playing! But the best players in this first lesson of the year will not necessarily be the best players by the end of the term. The best players will be the children who practice every week. No matter how much they might have struggled in their first lesson; if they practice regularly, they will start to improve, and as they start to improve, they feel motivated to practice more. We call this a ‘virtuous cycle’ – a cycle of positive reinforcement.
When we can model growth mindset in our own teaching practice and encourage students to incorporate it into their learning; when we can encourage students to work hard and benefit from the motivation of their own virtuous cycle , then we have created a truly positive classroom, where failure is no longer to be feared but to be embraced as an opportunity to learn and improve.
Author: Katherine Stannett
Katherine Stannett is an author with over twenty years of experience. She spent two years in Japan in the 1990s, teaching English to a wide variety of students in different settings. She is the co-author of several successful secondary series and has also written articles, songs and raps for popular EFL magazines. She has written two levels of the new National Geographic Learning course for young teenagers, Impact. She is an author for National Geographic Learning’s new series for young learners, Look. Katherine has given presentations and run workshops in countries around the world, including Poland, Kazakhstan, Portugal, Honduras, Nicaragua, Spain and Slovenia and also conducts webinars from her home office in the UK.