Q: What’s this image:
A: It’s a safety net. An invisible one.
As we started to look further into the design principles of effective project planning, one directive that I was most struck by was shared by 6th-grade (yr 7) Humanities teacher Azul Terronez and his teaching partner Marc Shulman: when you’re planning a project, plan for it to fail early on. Of course at this point we started smiling uncertainly, wondering whether we should be nodding or laughing at some kind of in-joke, but then they said it again. ‘Set up failure on purpose!’ ‘Fail up!’ ‘Fail upwards!’. But it did make sense – even though what they seemed to be advocating was action contrary to every teacher’s professional mission. Over the course of the day, we realised that only by failing – and by trying again would students produce work like this:
These are the final products of a process which includes critique, revision, critique again, revision, critique again, more revision. Students here are resilient to the idea of failure. It is actually embraced as a point in a process which they all understand will – in the end – produce work to be proud of. The proof is, furthermore, all around them.
We asked HOW do you set up failure on purpose. What teacher would spend time planning an activity which the kids will never get right? And what’s the teacher doing anyway, while the kids are trying and trying, and getting frustrated, and trying again? ‘I’m standing back’, said Marc. ‘For a day with that group, I’m gauging who the leaders are, the followers, the ones who give up, the one who bounce back, the ones who panic. I let them all be who they are. I just watch’. And then, just as we were thinking, woah, this is kinda sadistic dontcha think, he said ‘and we give them a safety net. We build in support for the failed attempts so that they can actually move on from them. But the safety net is invisible. If the kids know the net’s there, they’re just going to let themselves fall’.
I think that this says much about the culture that we are trying to set up ourselves at SBL. The cooperative values which include the self-help and self-responsibility which we want to embrace and embed into the life of our whole school community are exactly those which we see modelled in the behaviour and attitudes of the students here at HTH – but they are also in our students who have produced incredible artwork, design work, published writing, electric performance, superlative maths skill and any number of examples that I know that you are thinking of right now. We are already building the culture where failure can and should lead to work which is authentic, born from a teacher’s passion/interest, and which has included the mastery of a set of subject criteria planned out in advance by paired subject teachers.
I suppose this is what is the question for us as teachers. We live with the threat of failure because we can’t get away from the requirements of our exam-driven culture and the constant inspection of our profession. We are being asked to not fail. Sometimes we don’t have a safety-net, visible or otherwise. Yet we are asking our students to take risks, to fail, and ultimately to learn through their failures. The cooperative values that we want to instil in them – and in all of us as a learning community – are those which embrace the notion of failing in order to find out what it’s like to succeed.
It is a very interesting mind-shift isn’t it?