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Faster, Higher, Stronger

September 4, 2007

One of my favourite blogs is Stephanie Quilao’s Back In Skinny Jeans, especially when she touches on topics that have resonances with education. Her post at the weekend, Older women tend to out pace younger women in running races struck a real chord with me, and I suspect it will with many of the educators out there. In it, Stephanie talks about the recent New York Times article about how women become stronger and faster as they age, unlike men who become progressively slower. The reason for this apparent anomoly, and the bit that got me thinking, is that the consensus seems to be that as women age, they stop caring about ego, or about appearing to be threatening for being so strong, and instead they start to push themselves to see how fast they can be for themselves…

Let’s transfer this notion to education. How often have you had a pupil in front of you who you know is better than his or her written work would suggest? How often have you seen a group of pupils sitting there waiting to be given the answer when you know that the answer lies in their trying to work it out for themselves, that trying to find an answer is the solution! And worst of all, how often have you seen peer pressure become a negative thing because it is not ‘cool’ or acceptable to be seen to be studying? In my own case, I have seen all of these things happen, and every time, I feel a sense of lost or missed opportunities…

Why do so many of our pupils lack the necessary confidence in their own abilities and skills, and why are they so reluctant to push themselves? A large part of this is surely because they are scared to fail… yet without failure, how can we ever learn? I think it was Ewan who talked about how the Dyson cleaner went through a few thousand prototypes before they arrived at the production version…
To paraphrase Stephanie Quilao,

…we need to free pupils from the people-pleasing and onto the me-pleasing. They may just happily shock themselves by discovering just how powerful they are and by how much they really can accomplish.

If we can achieve this, if we can help pupils to start working for themselves, then we are one step closer to producing the life-long learners that we know they need to be. For my part, I’m going to be giving my Higher class a copy of the articles to see what they make of them, and hopefully some of them can run just that little bit faster.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. September 4, 2007 10:45 pm

    Hi Mr W,

    Why are pupils scared to fail? Maybe it’s because we (the teachers) are even more scared of failure.

  2. September 4, 2007 11:46 pm

    A good point… There has been some really interesting thinking going on about why teachers have been slow to embrace the new tools that are there for the taking (blogs/wikis/youtube/etc…), and one constant is the fear of failure. Teachers like to sit there as an authority, but for me, authority can often be a dead end. Authority implies that you know it all, and that can lead to entropy and stagnation.

    I do not consider myself an ‘authority’ per se. There are things I can do better than other teachers, but there are many more things that they can do better than me. The difference is that I am a learner as much as a teacher. I know I don’t know anything, and the difference today is that the connected classroom allows me – or rather, should allow me – to find the information I need.

    I really am not scared to fail, because every time I do, I learn something.

    Having said that, I think the fear of failure is more deep seated in our (Scottish) culture. This isn’t one that can be laid entirely at the feet of teachers. If you look closely at a class, and especially a more challenging one, you will recognise pupils who have become completely disenfranchised from the education process for a variety of reasons. Fear of failure is part of it, but fear of trying because of peer pressure is a much more powerful influence… I think we need to celebrate achievement as a means of countering the nay-sayers. We need to create a new culture where people are not scared to try different things, but that is sometimes very difficult in schools because of the external pressures created by exams and employers…

    I sense a follow-up post… Thanks for making me think!

  3. September 5, 2007 6:19 am

    Yup, it was 5126 attempts before Dyson managed to work out how to get air to move at 400mph in a plastic see-through tube. I reckon failure is the ultimate teaching accessory. I’ve written two main posts about my thoughts before:

    Part 1:

    Part 2:

    People have said to me that I’m lucky to be in a job where I can fail, as if they are in one where they cannot. It seems that as teachers we often have trouble separating students’ exam successes from our own capacity to fail and still draw worthwhile learning from it. After all, *we’re* not the ones sitting the exams; surely we can fail? When we start to fail successfully our students will pick up on the courage to do the same.

  4. September 9, 2007 10:44 pm

    I think it may have something to do with the whole ethos of any given class group. About turning them into a self-supporting group who will help/accept help from each other without condescension or resentment. About getting alongside them as they learn and celebrating their achievements, no matter how small. And certainly about admiring them if they come up with something you haven’t thought of (maybe this happens more in English than in other subjects) and being gentle with brave failure.
    Oh – and maybe about separating the genders in middle school years!

  5. September 10, 2007 8:47 pm

    @Ewan: Thanks for the links! I wonder if we should be made (or perhaps, ‘invited’) to ‘re-sit’ the subjects we teach every few years or so. As well as keeping us fresh, it would also encourage us to see the course more clearly from the pupils point of view. It goes without saying that many of my colleagues would not appreciate such a move, but I still think it is worth considering.

    @Chris: I couldn’t agree more about the idea that they can (and often do) think of new ideas about the texts. I still remember and ex-pupil who taught me more about Wilfred Owen’s Dulce Et Decorum Est than some of the research I did when preparing the poem.

    And I wonder how the PC brigade would take to gender setting… despite the belief by many teachers that it would make a real difference to attainment (especially in boys)!

  6. September 10, 2007 10:30 pm

    At the risk of sounding smug (who? moi?) I have to say I proved the efficacy of gender setting with two successive Standard grade classes whose results were considerably better than their predictions. And the writing boys do when they’re not bothered about image is sensitive and real in a way I’d rarely seen at S4 level in mixed classes.

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