Learning to pass is failing to learn

Jane Basnett

Jane Basnett is head of MFL at Downe House, a successful Independent Girls School in Berkshire. She has been teaching for almost 20 years and is still learning. She achieved an MA in Digital Technology for Language Teaching at Nottingham University.

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Website: janeebasnett.blogspot.co.uk Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

How often have I heard a pupil ask “but do I need to know this for my exam?” Indeed, how often have I said to myself “time is short, do they need to know this?” No matter who says it or thinks it, it is equally frustrating. As teachers we have become slaves to league tables and all that that entails. Pupils have to get the grades because they have hopes and aspirations and there is so much competition. I do want them to get those top marks because I genuinely want them to realise their dreams. However, how can I get them to see that learning uniquely for an exam is not the best, nor the most important, approach? What matters is that they learn to love studying, that they learn to discover the art of studying and that they realise that there is always another step that can be taken, another fact that can be considered, and another equation that can be solved.

So, how can I set them on this path? I am surely an integral part of the process? I must be the catalyst. It is in the questions I ask and the tasks and challenges I set. The verbs that I use should move my pupils beyond simply identifying, memorising and describing. It is in reflecting, solving and hypothesising that pupils will eventually achieve more. I do not doubt that initially they will stumble and this will cause them concern. Yet, does this really matter?

How good would it be, for example, if I could teach my pupils to fail? Or at least that it is alright to fail. I believe it is in failing that we learn so much more and can thus make progress. One of my favourite plenaries is “what is the best mistake you have made today?” My pupils are happy to enlighten me; they no longer just tell me what went wrong, they also tell me what they learnt from the experience. Failing and then reflecting on this failure is to consider where we have gone wrong and learn how we can correct our mistakes.

It may sound clichéd, but best learning is often about taking one step forward and two steps back. Once pupils accept and understand this then, as learners, they are effectively liberated and empowered to learn simply for the sake of learning. The fear of failure has been swept away from under their feet and although initially they may feel unstable and unsure, pupils are left with a greater understanding about the power of learning. This approach goes some way to helping pupils become lifelong learners as they finally set foot on the path of discovery. That joyous desire to absorb information, work things out for themselves, reflect and consider that they once had as toddlers and youngsters in primary school is brought to the fore again. This is all for the better. Discovery and thinking that does not have assessment as its goal is far more empowering and advantageous for learners.

Furthermore, in all this discovery and learning for learning’s sake, pupils inadvertently attain the goals set out in the assessment criteria. However, they have not gone about it in a blinkered manner where only exams matter. They have gone beyond the confines set out by examination demands and in doing so they have surpassed the requirements laid down by assessment criteria. In learning to fail they have learnt to pass and, what is more, they have learnt a far greater lesson: to learn for life, and that is undoubtedly one of the best lessons they could have asked for.


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