Effortless English Archives

Automatic English For The People

Monday, February 13, 2006

Reward Failure

"Reward Excellent Failures. Punish Mediocre Successes."

--Tom Peters

I hate grades... and this is why. Grades punish failure, but we should be rewarding bold failures. Rather than teaching students to fear mistakes, we should be encouraging them to take risks. We should build, rather than tear down, their confidence.

This is especially true in language education. For example, most of my students are good enough to engage in basic conversations with native speakers. But they are scared to. They tell me they fear making mistakes. I tell them, "native speakers make mistakes too", but this never helps. As a result, they leave school and rarely use the language... even though they are capable of doing so, even though they are living in America.

My students have been taught to fear failure and abhor mistakes. Their mindset: "I cannot [will not] use English until I can speak perfect fluent English like a native speaker." Since most will never reach that level (and dont need to), most will never communicate extensively outside the classroom. English, for them, will always be an academic subject... something they study but never use.

I dont blame the students... they were conditioned by their teachers and schools. Most teachers have the same fear of failure. At past jobs, for example, I used to mention new things I wanted to try in my classes. Invariably the other teachers shook their heads and lectured me on why it wouldnt work. If my boss was around, s/he usually criticized the idea and told me to "stick with the curriculum". I quickly learned to keep quiet around bosses and co-workers.

Failure is great. The textbook hounds are not. Ive had many students in the past who kicked ass with the textbook, got straight A's on tests, and couldnt (or wouldnt) communicate. Often, the "bad" students were much better communicators. They made more mistakes. Their grammar sucked. But they got out there and USED the language. Over time, they usually surpass the "good" students.

One of the many problems I have with textbooks is that students use them as crutches.... as a protective shield against risk. Theyve studied with them all their lives. And so they know exactly what to do.... how to fill in the blanks, repeat the "target grammar", pass the test. But stick them in a remotely "real" environment and they panic. Many are terrified (its no coincidence that most of my students skipped class the day of the retirement home field trip)!

From a no-nonsense practical standpoint, failure is absolutely essential. We've got to help our language students become comfortable with mistakes. Otherwise, they may study English for decades but never have the courage to use it.

And if thats the case, what the hell is the point of studying (or teaching) the language in the first place.

Help your students fail. Encourage them to make mistakes (instead of correcting them).

Reward mistakes. Punish timid perfection.