There’s something inevitable about failure in the classroom: so many things can go wrong. Equipment breaks down, materials get forgotten, ideas that look great on paper just don’t take off – and those are just teacher problems. For students, there is the constant threat of embarrassing mistakes, forgotten phrases and lower- than-hoped-for scores.

Yet we are often reminded of the necessity of failure. Indeed, the internet is brimming with inspiring quotes from people like Thomas Edison, who reputedly said: ‘I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.’ Failure is said to be a learning tool, a stage through which all great people pass.

But while we may embrace the idea of failure in principle, it’s a lot less appealing in practice. Teachers face considerable pressure to avoid failure – in the form of observations, performance management, student demands and personal expectations. Students, meanwhile, often invest heavily in their courses and may experience pressure from family, employers and peers to achieve rapid results.

Indeed, one of the most painful aspects of failure is the sense that others are watching and judging us. If we are to experience failure in a positive sense, then we need to do so in an atmosphere of trust. The classroom needs to be a place where all the participants (including the teacher) feel comfortable making – and learning from – mistakes.

So if, as Henry Ford believed, ‘the only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing’, how do we ensure that we, as teachers, and our students as well really do learn from mistakes? How can we, in Samuel Beckett’s words, ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better’?

Setting off on the right foot

Perhaps no lesson is more important than the first one. The students usually arrive feeling anxious and, as Zoltán Dörnyei and Tim Murphey put it, ‘observe each other suspiciously, sizing up one another and trying to find a place in n unestablished and unstable hierarchy’. The teacher is often equally nervous. Will the class ‘gel’? Will there be significant disparities in levels? Will there be any ‘difficult’ students? Here are two activities that not only enable the students to get to know each other, but also reveal that we are all (teacher included!) vulnerable to anxieties and mistakes:

The name game

  • Ask the students to stand up and form a circle (with large classes, start with one circle, then break into two or three groups once the pattern is established).
  •  Join the circle yourself and create a space on your left-hand side. Point out the space and explain that you want to call one person to join you, but you don’t know any names.
  • Make eye contact with one student (this is likely to be someone confident) and say: ‘Excuse me, what’s your name?’
  • Once they’ve answered, say: ‘[Name], please come here.’
  • After the first student crosses the circle, point out that there is now a space on the left-hand side of their neighbouring student. Ask that student to call someone else.
  • With gentle prompting, the students will quickly start calling on their classmates.
  • There will be mistakes, of course, but these cause laughter, serving to break the ice.
  • Once the students gain speed and confidence, encourage them to stop asking ‘Excuse me, what’s your ame?’ and to call directly on anyone whose name they remember.

I first learnt this activity at Language Resources, Tokyo, over 20 years ago, and I have used it with many different nationalities and age groups. Its success lies in the way it places every participant (including the teacher on the same level). Since the focus is on remembering names rather than producing language, I have found that it works with virtually all levels.

Anxiety posters

Everyone has their worries at the beginning of a course. This activity capitalises on them.

  • Before the lesson, prepare some posters on A3 or flipchart paper.
  • At the top of each poster, write the beginnings of some negative sentences, eg ‘I really don’t like …’, ‘I’m not very confident about …’, ‘I’m worried that I might ...’ (adapting these to the level of your students).
  • Hand out pens and give the students time to write their (anonymous) comments on each poster. You could dd your own comments if it seems appropriate.
  • Form groups and give one poster to each group. Have them summarise the comments, eg ‘Many of us are orried about …’.
  • Create new groups, each with one member of the original groups, so they can share what they’ve learnt.

In an age of ‘positive thinking’, this activity might feel counterintuitive, but most students are relieved to know they're not alone in feeling worried. As the course progresses, you can continue to build trust and rapport with task-based activities that focus attention on process rather than performance. Challenges that involve a degree of trial and error, such as designing and marketing a product or surviving on a desert island, work well here.

Errors without embarrassment

In his popular science book, How We Learn, Benedict Carey highlights research which shows that unsuccessful retrieval attempts – ie wrong answers – aren’t merely random failures. Instead, they prime the brain to notice relevant correct information, increasing ‘a person’s likelihood of nailing that question, or a related one, on a later est’. In other words, ‘fails’ are ideal learning opportunities. That said, nobody likes to fail, especially if they fail alone!

The following activities are designed to highlight common errors without causing embarrassment.

We haven’t a clue!

  • Create a challenge to ‘test’ the students on an area you want to deal with: for example, a grammar quiz, roleplay cards, an audio clip or writing prompt.
  • Group the students as appropriate and tell them you want to learn how much they already know.
  • Have the students complete the activity as best they can.
  • Draw two columns on the board and give each an appropriate heading, eg We know how to …/We don’t know how to … or We can easily …/We have problems with … .
  • Give the students time to discuss and formulate responses, then ask them to write them on the board.
  • Discuss the results and brainstorm possible responses.

This activity can lead on to individual or group goal-setting. In addition, this approach flags up areas where the students are already skilled or confident, and therefore don’t need basic or remedial work.

What did they say?

  • Select an audio clip with one or two people talking. You will need a clip that lasts no more than four minutes and which, in terms of level, is slightly outside your students’ comfort zone.
  • Explain that they will hear the clip once and should listen for the general idea, ie what it is that the people are talking about.
  • Play the clip, then give each student a piece of paper (a quarter of an A4 page cut lengthways works well). Ask the students to write a single sentence describing what was being talked about.
  • Collect the slips of paper and spread them out on a table (with large classes, have teams agree on nswers, before writing them on the board).
  • After everyone has read the anonymous, and often contradictory, sentences, play the recording again more than once, if necessary and ask which sentence best matches what we can hear? Ask the students for evidence to back up their answers.
  • Finally, ask Why were the other answers wrong? Play the recording again, and see if they can find the 'distracting' information.

This activity works well with exam classes, particularly those preparing for IELTS. You may also want to provide the audioscript to help the students match the words they hear with their printed forms.

Chuck it!

  • Collect a set of typical learner errors – lexical or grammatical errors work best.
  • Write or type each error on a slip of paper and mix in some correct sentences (about 30%–40% works well). Fold the slip and put them in a box, hat or bag.
  • Place a bin or box in front of the board and a chair about two metres away from it.
  • Divide the class into two teams and demonstrate the activity.
  • A representative of one team comes forward and takes a slip back to their team.
  • For one point, the team decides whether the sentence is right or wrong.
  • For a second point, they correct any errors.
  •  For a third point, the representative sits on the chair and tries to throw the crumpled slip into the bin.
  • The game continues until all the slips have been taken or you run out of time.

If you have access to sports facilities, the crumpled slips and bin can be replaced by a football/basketball and goal/hoop.

Experts fail, too

There is an old Japanese saying, ‘Even monkeys fall from trees’, which reminds us that experts also make mistakes. I imagine most teachers have experienced moments where equipment fails, they forget a key resource or their mind simply goes blank. But these teacher ‘fails’ can also be learning opportunities, as the following activities demonstrate.

How do you spell that?

  • You’re about to write a word on the board but, wait, how exactly is it spelled?
  • Write up three possible spellings.
  • Instigate a dictionary race to find out which spelling is correct.

If it is culturally appropriate, you could add an extra degree of motivation by asking teams to bet on the correct version.

What’s the problem?

Classroom equipment and technology is not always as cooperative as we’d like. And if you’re working in a second-language environment, navigating on-screen controls can be a challenge. So why not ask your students to help? 

  • Form groups and ask a representative of each group to examine the problem.
  • These reps discuss the problem with their group and may send other members to check it.
  •  The group then formulates a strategy, writing a poster of instructions.
  • The class then tests the various proposals to see which works.

If you’re keen to practise imperatives, you could even create a problem that needs solving!

Last-minute lessons

It sometimes happens, of course: you leave your materials on the train, your classroom gets switched or new students unexpectedly join your class. Those ‘best-laid plans’ suddenly go out of the window and you have one resource left – the people in the room.

  • Ask the class what they each consider themselves to be an expert on. Cooking? Snowboarding? Marketing? Tell them you want to find out how much of an expert they are. Class (or team) members then create questions to challenge the ‘expert’, who answers from a ‘hot seat’. (Be warned, advanced classes can get very competitive about this!)
  • Or simply ask ‘What would you like to talk about today?’ Tear some paper into slips, have the students write topics on them and mix them in a bag. Ask one student to select a slip, and create a ‘party mingle’ situation where the topic can be discussed. If conversation flags, just choose a new topic.
  • Disruption can be interesting, so why not discuss (or write about) it? See who can come up with the most creative reason for the problem you face! It’s a chance to practise modal verbs and the present perfect too.

The ‘class experts’ idea comes from Jon Chandler and Mark Stone. Luke Meddings and Scott Thornbury and Bruce Marsland have more ideas for last-minute lessons.

 

A recent BBC article about the celebration of failure in Silicon Valley points out that failure is only useful if people ‘remember exactly where and how they failed, so when they encounter the same problem again, even if in a different guise, they are able to retrieve these “failure indices” quickly and efficiently’. In the classroom, this may mean puzzling out a potential error in a game or laughing about a forgotten name. If we can turn classroom fails into teachable moments by filling them with purpose and humour, our classes should contain more memorable moments and our students should stand a better chance of ‘failing better’.

 

Carey, B How We Learn Pan Macmillan 2014
Chandler, J and Stone, M The Resourceful English
Teacher Delta Publishing 1999
Dörnyei, Z and Murphey, T Group Dynamics in the
Language Classroom CUP 2003
Marsland, B Lessons from Nothing CUP 1998
Meddings, L and Thornbury, S Teaching Unplugged
Delta Publishing 2009


Alison Carse teaches EAP and EFL on pre-sessional and in-sessional university courses. She has 28 years’ experience working with both multilingual and monolingual groups in the UK and Japan. Currently, she is researching the effects of ‘spaced learning’ on second language acquisition. alisonjcarse@gmail.com