01 December 2013

On failing, to learn

I've been asked to contribute a piece to a newsletter for work-place mentors on a teacher education programme; what follows is a slightly expanded version—I hope I'll get some interesting comments from the newsletter itself...
    Managers and Ofsted and even tutors on teacher-training courses often labour under the delusion that there are right and wrong ways of teaching.

    Certainly there are some very bad ways of "teaching", sometimes because they are downright immoral, oppressive, cruel and exploitative, sometimes simply because they do not work, and sometimes because they work all too well—except that what the students learn is not what they were taught. It's probably fairly easy to arrive at a consensus about that...

    "Right" and "wrong" are useless labels—they appeal to absolutist moral or axiomatic (e.g. mathematical) standards and those are rarely helpful frameworks to judge complex and messy practice. It would be more useful to refer to "effective" or "ineffective" practice, which of course invites the question, "effective for what?" That is a question which is rarely answered, beyond reference to organisational goals of recruitment, retention, achievement and perhaps employment.

    But the question of  "good" or "right" ways is much more complicated, because there are many such ways, and the choice will vary according to discipline and subject and group and what worked last week, and time pressure, and equipment failure and everything under the sun... You can plan until the cows come home, but as the Prussian General von Moltke put it:
    'No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy.'*
    (or the students—not of course that the students are the enemy!)  He wasn't quite right in terms of teaching—it is possible to plough on regardless with Plan A and "deliver" the session, but the engagement will not be there, and it won't be real "teaching".

    I observe lots of sessions where I am provided with confident minute-by-minute lesson plans; one thing I can say with confidence is that any session which conforms with those projections will be missing something important. Reaction, adjustment, accommodation, dialogue.

    Teaching involves a myriad of trade-offs and opportunity costs and adjustments and dealing with unintended consequences.
    • Someone asks whether you can leave the slide on the screen for a little longer so she can take notes—is that the right thing to do? It will hold up the rest of the session (if only for a few seconds); but it will set a precedent. Is supporting note-taking the best use of time? 
    • You are questioning the group to check their learning. Good practice. But A clearly has not got it. Is he typical of the class? Should you invest time is getting him on board, because it would help a lot of others, too? Or is he an outlier? Should you make a note to offer him assistance later and plough on? Or just carry on regardless, on the basis that you can't win them all? 
    • The class is going well—much better than last year's. You set an exercise with a higher bar than before. Their success should do wonders for their confidence! Only it doesn't work out like that. Some of the class don't meet the challenge and are discouraged; some ace it and decide they don't need to put any more work in—the exam will be a doddle. Was it something you said? How do you recoup the situation?
    This kind of situation is the meat and drink of the mentoring process. (Sorry, veggies!)

    This is where you as a teacher, and your mentee too, exercise professional judgement second-by-second. You review, judge, prioritise (and at the same time you are swayed by subjective considerations, such as trying to keep to time, not being too hard on B who is struggling, being fed up with that obsessive berk C who is always asking questions about the assessment rather than the content, and...) and act. Like it or not, you act. And not acting is acting, too. (Someone is being mildly—probably unintentionally—disruptive by talking to his neighbour. You can intervene; that "sends a message" about your authority, and being heavy-handed... Or you can let it pass and do nothing. That also sends a message...)

    Every time we make one of these routine interventions we put our practice on the line. We take risks in the interest of some underlying principle about teaching or our survival in the job—although we may not be aware of what that principle is (or those conflicting principles are), and we risk failure.

    Great! In my experience as mentee, mentor and tutor, it is hard work to get people to learn from success. It worked; do it again! Relax; rest on your laurels. You plateau, particularly if you are already exceeding expectations. (That's the story of my culinary life; "good-enough" is the kiss of stasis.)

    But "right" and "wrong" are not what it is about. Those categories come into play only when a "higher" authority arrogates to itself the right to make such judgements. "Success" and "failure" are the kinds of judgement you make about your experiments—and every intervention in class is an experiment.

    (Also known as "trial and error". You can't get much more basic than that...)  

    Failure is critical to learning. The culture of retention and achievement-related funding and indeed of inclusivity, is in denial about the reality and importance of failure. Failure is not a condemnation of the individual, it is a signal about the existence of standards and the work required to meet them.

    As Samuel Beckett—about as far as you can get from von Moltke—put it:
    [...] failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. (Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho, 1983)
    That's why we do not grade teaching observations—because that would promote defensive practice, and the avoidance of failure, and forestall a lot of learning.

    Mentoring is about getting mentees to fail better.  

    * As quoted in Donnybrook : The Battle of Bull Run, 1861 (2005) by David Detzer, p. 233. As I checked out this quote, I came across the following fuller version, which struck me as even more apposite to teaching:
    'The tactical result of an engagement forms the base for new strategic decisions because victory or defeat in a battle changes the situation to such a degree that no human acumen is able to see beyond the first battle. In this sense one should understand Napoleon's saying: "I have never had a plan of operations."' ["On Strategy" (1871), as translated in Moltke on the Art of War: Selected Writings (1993) by Daniel J. Hughes and Harry Bell, p. 92]

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