Teachers make mistakes

When you’ve watched this TED video by Brian Goldman, I suspect you’ll find yourself quite emotionally charged in response to his plea for a culture change in medicine. It hits close to home for many of us. He articulates a theme common to many professions, but particularly prominent in professions where ‘esteem’ and ‘authority’ are valued. His theme is the cultural denial of failure in the medical profession and the conspiracy of silence that accompanies it.

But of course they do! And Brian eloquently and passionately describes why it’s essential to change the culture of medicine to one in which mistakes are openly acknowledged and embraced as learning opportunities.

I remember when I first embraced mistakes in learning (and it wasn’t at school). I was in my mid twenties and a keen climber. As a relative beginner, I still tended to cling to the wall rather than dance with it. The nervous tension in my muscles precluded fluid movement! My more experienced climbing partner told me that I would relax when I began to trust him, myself and the equipment more deeply. However, the only way to learn that trust, and to move beyond my self-imposed limitations, was to try new moves, fail and come off the rock face – a lot. Rather than define success as staying on the rock face. He re-defined success for me as coming off the rock face. If I wasn’t falling, I wasn’t learning. If I wasn’t falling (and surviving), I wasn’t learning to trust him, myself and the equipment.

As a consequence of this learning, I’m guilty of tweeting the following aphorism on a regular basis: “Learning is inversely proportional to the intolerance of failure.” It takes a few seconds to untwist the words but that’s deliberate. I could’ve said, “We learn from our mistakes” and no doubt you’d nod sagely and move quickly on. But the phrase “the intolerance of failure” is important. In principle, we understand that we learn from our mistakes yet in so many situations we are intolerant of failure, both in ourselves and in others, and therefore we limit the potential for improvement.

Can you think of another profession in which this culture is rife? John Hattie can. John is a well known education researcher and author of the book Visible Learning. If you’re a teacher I would thoroughly recommend you explore his research. There’s a very challenging, two part video of him speaking on Youtube (here and here). In his book and in this video, he’s very clear that teaching is one of those professions that’s intolerant of failure. Mutual respect for colleagues is code for, “When I go into my classroom and close my door I’m going to teach any way I like so leave me alone.” John’s evidence indicates that most teachers spend less than a minute a month discussing teaching with each other. This is indicative of a culture of silence around performance.

When I attend my 14 year old daughter’s academic review meetings, I’ve never heard a teacher say, “I’m failing your daughter and I need to work out how I can better meet her needs.” On the other hand, I regularly hear, “Your daughter could do better if she…” But who is  failing who here? The focus on under-performing teachers tends to organise itself around the ability of head teachers to sack teachers who don’t meet certain standards. In my opinion, this is a minor symptom of a much wider malaise facing the teaching profession. The bigger issue is that the profession’s definition of ‘under-performing’ is hopelessly skewed towards extreme failure. I’m more concerned with the large number of average teachers who are chronically complacent about their own personal development than I am about the very small number of acutely failing teachers.

There’s no doubt that many teachers are beginning to build PLNs (Personal Learning Networks) and that learning events such as Teachmeets are becoming more popular. Nevertheless, a culture is not something which changes overnight. It takes time, data and strong leadership. There is a deeply ingrained bias to label children as failing as opposed to teachers. This is the wrong way around and John Hattie’s experimental evidence demonstrates it clearly.

I’d like to see a teaching profession that accepts it is making mistakes, and that actively invites data-led, teacher performance evaluation as a way of learning from those mistakes. I don’t want this data to be used as a stick to beat teachers. I want every individual teacher to seek out this data as a means of steering their personal development within a supportive and vibrant culture of learning.

If mistakes aren’t acknowledged then personal learning isn’t happening. If personal learning isn’t happening then organisational learning isn’t happening. If organisational learning isn’t happening then the teaching profession is not only failing students, but it is failing to learn from its mistakes. This is the unacceptable face of failure. Failure to learn from our mistakes.

UPDATE : I tweeted this today (5th Feb 2011): ‘Failure week’ at top girls’ school to build resilience http://bbc.in/yEHKe1 #education #edchat

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