It’s a word that strikes terror into the A students among us. Teachers included. So why encourage failure in the ESL classroom? There are actually several positive things that come from failure. Here’s how to use it effectively for your students.
4 Big Reasons You Should Encourage Your Students to Reach for the Unreachable
What Is Failure?
Failure has a bad reputation. When we think of failure, we often associate it with shame and negative potential, but failure is actually a good thing when you approach it with the right attitude. It’s part of achieving success. Just ask Thomas Edison who supposedly said he didn’t fail a thousand times before successfully creating the lightbulb but who said creating the lightbulb was a process with one thousand steps. Often success is not possible without the possibility of failure as well.
The first step in using failure for positive gains is to take away the shame associated with it. This can be particularly hard with ESL students since many of their home cultures have strong negative associations with failure. Failure can bring shame to individuals as well as families, so it becomes a taboo and as a result, the fear of failure becomes a blockade to success.
We need to help students understand that failure in the right circumstances can actually be a good thing. We need to be very clear that they have the freedom to fail in our classes and in their endeavors to learn the English language. That in a sense failure is encouraged because it helps us reach for our best selves.
What Does Failure Have to Offer?
When we give students permission to fail, we are also giving them permission to reach for the seemingly unattainable. Sometimes, students want to try for impossible goals. Whether it is taking the TOEFL sooner than they may be ready or attending a college class taught solely in English, our students may have lofty goals. In the best cases, they may achieve those impossible goals. And that is great cause for celebration. But more often they will fail when they grasp for things clearly beyond their reach.
Without the permission to fail, we take away our students’ potential because we take away their permission to reach for the stars. We tell them that they need to be safe, that they should only attempt those things which they are confident they can achieve. This actually limits our students’ potential. It keeps them confined. What if artists like Van Gogh and Picasso didn’t push the boundaries of acceptable art at their time? Their attempt at something beyond reach allowed them to achieve great things and have an impact on the entire world. So explicitly giving our students the freedom to fail frees them to attempt great things.
It also builds confidence in our students. When we demystify failure by welcoming it into the classroom, we also take away the fear associated with attempting great deeds. Fear can paralyze. It can prevent us from taking risks. When it comes to jumping out of an airplane that might be a good thing, but communicating in a second language inherently involves risk. It’s just a reality. You have to take a risk to communicate with someone using a language you are imperfect at or that you are still learning. When we take the fear away from failure, our students will be more willing and ready to take risks, and that will only give them more success in English.
Allowing student the freedom to fail also takes away the shame that might otherwise be associated with failing. Shame can also be a paralyzing factor. It also breeds self-contempt. Taking away shame associated with failure actually promotes a healthier attitude of self. We all have problems, but shame doesn’t have to be one of them. Free your students from self-deprecation by demystifying fear and making your classroom a safe place for failure.
What Can Failure Teach?
Failure not only opens up the possibility of success. It also teaches us to get back up and try again. It makes people more resilient. Learning language is a long process, and your students will have ups and downs along the road to English fluency. When they fail and see that they can overcome that failure, they will have more courage to attempt the next daunting task. They will also learn that failure isn’t debilitating. That it is possible to walk away from even great blunders.
Failure gives students an opportunity for self-reflection. Self-reflection has many benefits for language learners including increasing motivation and aiding in focus. To help students through the self-reflection process, ask them to spend some time thinking or writing about the following questions. What are your strengths? What are your areas of weakness? What specific factors contributed to your failure at this task? What are your goals for the future? What information or support will you need to achieve these goals? After students have answer those questions, meet with them to discuss their answers. Then help students make a plan to achieve their goals and help them define which steps they will need to find success this time.
In addition to imparting courage in the face of future failures, failing can teach students the skills they need for success. It can show them they have places where they can and need to grow. When you encourage self-reflection in the face of failure, students take a look at why they failed and what skills they would have needed to succeed. This can open opportunities to teach new skills in English to a more willing audience. It can also increase motivation to learn in students that may be less engaged otherwise. When students see the need for certain skills, a drive to learn comes from within them. That internal motivation is far more effective for achieving success than motivation imposed from the outside (such as getting a reward or avoiding punishment). Then you can work with them to develop a strategy for success next time.
Finally, failure teaches us that we do not need to strive for perfection. Perfectionism is a problem many people face. It is in no way limited to students studying a foreign language. Perfection paralyses us. It keeps us from trying unless we are sure of not only success but a complete lack of mistakes. Perfectionism just doesn’t mix with language learning. Even native speakers make mistakes when they speak and write. (Just ask my friend who insists she is comma compromised, and she’s a professional writer!) Speaking English is, in and of itself, taking a risk. We need to inspire courage in our students and not fear. When we demystify failure and take away the shame associated with it, we give our students tools for greater success for the rest of their English speaking careers.
You don’t have to desire failure for your students, but it is in their best interest to make your class a safe place to attempt great things.
Often failure will come, but sometimes students will see unexpected and unparalleled success. And that alone is worth the risk of failing.