Reach for it: Failing to Succeed

Reach for it.png

If you think about it, we already knew that we were making learning too easy.  What teacher hasn’t bemoaned the extent of ‘spoon feeding’ in the modern education system?  The rich irony is that by making learning too easy we’ve actually made it harder for students to learn effectively.

Too many educational decisions in the first decade of the C21st were predicated on easiness: ‘Buy one get three free’ qualifications spring immediately to mind.  The rot had spread to the very heart of the classroom.  Gone were the days of teacher feedback along the lines of: ‘if you don’t know, I’m not going to tell you.’  If our students didn’t know, we would pretty much do it for them.  Many are the History GCSE grades that belong more to me for services to coursework and recall above and beyond the call of duty than to their supposed holders.

Dweck’s ‘Growth Mind-set’ was a wake-up call.  Students can ‘grow their brains’ by learning something hard and improve their intelligence through hard work.  Key characteristics of effective students are therefore:

  • Enjoying effort
  • Welcoming mistakes
  • Handling difficulty

Gladwell’s theory that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill reinforces this emphasis on effort and hard work.

“The key to success in any field is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours.” Gladwell (2008)

In school terms this equates to 9 years of 30-hour weeks for students (25 hours of lessons and 5 hours of homework) over the 39 weeks of the school year.  A time period that puts the ‘mastery’ gained in a 50-minute lesson into perspective.

As an antidote to the current ‘rapid progress’ culture, Bjork identifies ‘desirable difficulties’ such as variability, spacing, testing, interleaving and reducing feedback.

“Conditions which induce the most errors during acquisition are often the very conditions that lead to the most learning.” Bjork (2013)

Hattie stresses the importance of a ‘growth mind-set’ for teachers as well as students:

“Enhancing learning also needs... environments where teachers can talk about their learning, where errors or difficulties are seen as critical learning opportunities... where teachers feel safe to learn.”  Hattie (2009)

All of this, suggests that struggle is crucial to effective learning, and should occupy a key place in learning classrooms and learner/ teacher mind-sets. 

20 ideas to encourage students to ‘reach for it’

1.  Be explicit with students that they need to fail to succeed.  Provide learner CPD as well as teacher CPD through assemblies or form time sessions so that students understand their learning.  This Learning Contract encourages students to reflect explicitly on the attitudes that they need to develop:

Learning Contract

2. Be explicit with students that they need to fail to succeed.  Have ‘reach for it’ assemblies for students celebrating ‘failures’ who didn’t get there first time.  Some examples are provided in the links below: 

Failing to Succeed Assembly

3.  Embed ‘reaching for it’ into the school culture.  Name houses or rewards after great ‘failures’ who didn’t get there first time. 

4.  Create a ‘reach for it’ culture in your classroom, department or school in which difficulty rather than easiness is desirable.  Don’t use easiness as a reward or bribe for students in lessons.  Use analogies of desirable difficulty that will resonate with your students: no one got into the marines by choosing the easy option.

5.  Reframe mistakes into ‘reaching for your failure line.’  Below this line is what you have already mastered.  Above this line is what you have still to master.  Make it a success criterion of lessons that students reach their failure line.

6.  Students should struggle every lesson.  Provide challenging tasks that students cannot get right first time. 

 7.  Bjork suggests replacing predictability with variability.  Build extended abstract thinking into lessons so that students get used to applying understanding out of context.  This lesson plan provides a template:

Lesson Plan

8.  Provide regular opportunities for students to develop a strategy for what to do when they can’t do it.  How do they use their own brain when this is the only resource that they’ve got?  Idea 10 might help with this.  Think about planning some un-doable activities into learning.

9.  Don’t spend students’ time on what they can do.  Provide task ‘ladders’ that students can move up once they’ve mastered a task.  Some students might master a task after completing two activities, for others it might take fifteen.  Idea 11 might help with this.

10.  Use spreading activation models to encourage students to map their lines of thinking showing thinking links and cul-de-sacs.

11.  Ensure that students understand the steps needed for mastery. 

12.  Make it safe to make mistakes.  Welcome wrong answers as an opportunity to explore what went wrong in students’ thinking.

  • Why is this answer wrong?
  • Where did it go wrong?
  • What would make it right?
  • What would it be the right answer to?

There are some great techniques here:

13.  Teach students how dialectic thinking works so that they understand that different views can lead to deeper understanding.  I also like Alex Quigley’s ABC questions as a model for ‘reach for it’ discourse:

 14. Reflect in the plenary on the best mistake of the lesson or get students to reflect on their most useful mistake.  I like Shaun Allison’s idea of the struggle plenary:

15. Teach students to use modal language to encourage tentative thinking: may, ought, might, could, should etc.

16.  Build spaces into the curriculum in lessons or Scholarship Forms where there are no right answers using thinking games and thunking.  Reward students for their generation of ideas in a set time, or creativity of ideas rather than ‘rightness.’  Below are some ideas:

Thunking strategies
Thinking strategies

17.  Review your use of language as a teacher, department or school.  How often are you using the following words in formal and informal feedback including reports?


18. In work scrutinies look for evidence of struggle.  If students are getting everything right is the work challenging enough?

19. Consider using the same strategies for teachers as well as students.

20. Don’t overpraise with labels.  Consider carefully the presence of ‘fixed mind-set’ structures or rewards systems in the school for students and teachers such as the G&T Group.

Posted on October 1, 2014 .