Strutting Your Stuff – Modelling Fail


Except for Cary Grant who never fails. Image source:

One particular piece of feedback I remember when I was training on the Graduate Teacher Programme (GTP) was about pitching. I was teaching a Year 7 group.

During the feedback, my external mentor questioned the language that I used in that lesson. He reckoned that the vocabulary that I used was too complex for my students. That was one of the contributing factors that impeded the effectiveness of my teaching. I could see his point. But I also believed in the subtlety of subliminal learning: my students would eventually pick up the vocabulary if they heard it repeated regularly, even if it were too sophisticated for their age. To me, vocabulary knows no age.

My belief remains unchanged ten years after that lesson. So does my external mentor’s feedback stay etched in my head. If I want my students to use more advanced vocabulary in formal assignments, hearing it used by me is not enough. Subtlety is only effective when it is recognised, and I can make recognition take place by giving explicit reminders.

Previously, I have described how I try to teach critical vocabulary alongside a text in this blog:

But I also want my students to know that the process of acquiring new knowledge such as learning critical vocabulary is not always a smooth process. It can be messy, frustrating and demoralising. I think it is essential to demonstrate such a process. Trails and errors are very often inevitable before progress is made.

But demonstrating “failure” doesn’t fit the dominant notion about progress. Nor does it sit comfortably with common expectations of teacher authority in subject knowledge. For example, when giving an essay question, which options would we take: give the students an essay plan (writing frame) that we either have spent hours to prepare or obtained elsewhere, or attempt to answer the question to demonstrate the complex process of reading for surface meanings, inferring for implied meanings and interpretations based on personal experience? Are we willing to show our students when we struggle to respond to the questions that we set for them? Do we feel our authority threatened when we also need to improve on our critical language? Are we prepared to “fail” in front of those whom we are suppose to teach? Naturally, we don’t want to fail. But we can illustrate that failures are often unavoidable on the way to success. It is part of learning; it is part of life. The question is do we recognise our failures? Can we explain the possible causes? What do we learn from them?

If we adjust our attitude to accept the organic characypteristic of learning, then hopefully, learning becomes a genuine quest for knowledge and acquisition of skills – without the stigmatisation or fear of failure. Failures are not peanalised but accepted as proof of a genuine desire to improve and succeed. A culture shift is needed.


About W. S. Lien

Tweed Wearer - Country Lover - Teacher Researching Professionalism and Identity@Clare College, Cambridge - Keen Amateur Photographer - Devotee to Poppy my Labrador
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