Failure And How To Stop It Before It Happens

Picture taken from here.

I think we need to talk about failure. If you teach adults, there’s a good chance you’re teaching a room full of people who have failed to learn English at some point in their lives. I should clarify that when I say failed, I don’t mean that they were a complete disaster, but they probably didn’t reach the target they set for themselves. They’ve probably taken a bit of time off, which could be six months, five years or maybe even longer, and they’ve decided to have another crack.

Now some of you might be thinking that my use of the word ‘fail’ is a bit harsh. There’s a reason why I said the students ‘had failed’ rather than ‘were failures’. I’m not saying that you’ll be teaching a room full of losers, because they don’t mean the same thing. So while you might be conjuring up images of fail videos and Ronald Wayne, I prefer to think of failure in a different way.

My approach was inspired by an episode of Freakonomics from June this year, entitled Failure Is Your Friend. In this episode, they discuss the stigma of failure, how it stops us from making good decisions and how we can turn it into our friend. As co-presenter and economist Steven Levitt says ”I always tell my students — fail quickly. The quicker you fail the more chances you have to fail at something else before you eventually maybe find the thing that you don’t fail at.”

(And on a micro level, doesn’t this sound like something you might say to your students? But instead of saying ‘fail’, we usually say ‘mistakes’. I know I’ve told my students “Don’t worry, making mistakes is how we learn, it shows us that we still have things to learn.)

Their suggestion for trying to preempt failure is to perform a pre-mortem. Invented by Gary Klein, the author of Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights, he describes it in the Harvard Business Review as:

A premortem is the hypothetical opposite of a postmortem. A postmortem in a medical setting allows health professionals and the family to learn what caused a patient’s death. Everyone benefits except, of course, the patient. A premortem in a business setting comes at the beginning of a project rather than the end, so that the project can be improved rather than autopsied. Unlike a typical critiquing session, in which project team members are asked what might go wrong, the premortem operates on the assumption that the “patient” has died, and so asks what did go wrong. The team members’ task is to generate plausible reasons for the project’s failure.

Which strikes me as a brilliant idea, and something that could really help our adults learners, back again in the English classroom, find out why they may have failed in the past. I think it could work something like this:

  • First ask your students briefly summarise their goal(s) for this course and why. It doesn’t need to be too specific, but try to get them to say more than just “I want to improve my English because English is important.”
  • Ask your students to imagine the end of the course, six months from now or whatever seems appropriate in your context. Explain that things haven’t gone well and they haven’t reached their goal(s). Give them some time to write down reasons why they have failed. What stopped them from being successful?
  • Write the various issues on the board and ask them to come up with suggestions for what they can do to stop this from happening.

As an example, your students might say that they failed because they didn’t learn enough new vocabulary. This happened because they didn’t do enough homework, so to stop this from happening they will make sure that every Sunday morning they are free to study English.

One possible issue with this activity is that is does require a fair amount of self-awareness and understanding of the language learning process from the students in order to work. With that in mind, I would suggest that you are ready to support the students and have some possible answers ready if necessary. But in an ideal world, this would be a task which encourages a lot of self reflection which is obviously much better coming directly from the student rather than being teacher motivated.

What do you think? Could this work with your students? Do you see potential in this idea? I’d love to know, so leave a comment below with your thoughts.


8 thoughts on “Failure And How To Stop It Before It Happens

  1. Love the idea but a bit worried about self-fulfilling prophecies! I think if balanced with some more positive visualisation it’s got a lot of potential. I shall keep this in mind for for the next time I teach adults!

    Thanks for the idea!

  2. Good article. One to one online teaching is particularly prone to false starts. In my experience, the students who reach their goals never cancel their lessons and do homework between lessons.

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