• Jul 242013

How To Develop A Fail Safe Classroom

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When you’ve just lost the final of arguably the most prestigious tournament in your sport, a final where the vast majority of the crowd were rooting for the other guy and cheered your every error, and where, moments after losing, a microphone is shoved under your nose, you could be forgiven for providing the waiting media with a choice quote or two. Even if it is Sue Barker doing the interview.

What you probably wouldn’t be expected to say, however, is “it was an absolute pleasure and an honour to be part of this match”.

Novak Djokovic’s reaction on losing the Wimbledon final to Andy Murray was a sportsmanlike demonstration of how to deal with failure with immediate dignity. His behaviour in defeat was possibly a stronger lesson to draw from the final than the more obvious “perseverance pays off in the end”. It brought to mind a line from Mr Kipling’s exceedingly good poem ‘If’ (see what we did there?):
“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster / And treat those two imposters just the same.”

It’s a rare classroom where Triumph and Disaster are treated with the same degree of emotion. We don’t teach robots. Students love the highs of success and hate failing. That’s natural. In front of your peer group can be a harsh place to make a mistake. Sadly, this often results in students becoming reticent to contribute to discussions or to attempt answers where the risk of failure is high.

Since first writing this post, we came across the following tweet by Michael Jordan which seemed to be channelling Kipling’s ‘If’ so neatly we thought it was worth adding…

Our Fail Safe resource tries to balance things out a little. Given the right attitude, mistakes and failure in the classroom (or on the sports field), needn’t be as bad as all that. We recently saw the following on Twitter — “a LOSS is a Learning Opportunity, Stay Strong.”

When we came to put Fail Safe together, the idea of linking it to the language of retro computer games seemed perfect. It’s a language most (all?) of your class speak fluently and its vocabulary lends itself nicely to the themes of risk-taking and resilience — moving to the next level, choosing a character and so on. Even the word ‘resolution’ has another connotation to do with determination. Crucially, the act of game play involves making mistakes, learning from them, starting again and improving. This is a pattern our students aren’t just vaguely familiar with, it’s actually an enjoyable part of their lives.

So, why not in your classroom? Is there any reason why the Start-Fail-Evaluate-Change-Start Again model can’t be used to encourage resilience and a better attitude to risk-taking in your classroom? You use it already.

Why shouldn’t your students enjoy the act of re-drafting a story? (in our experience, they often don’t, so when you ask them to edit that A4 side of work do remind them to be thankful for giving them such a meagre task — JRR Tolkien re-drafted the 450,000+ words of Lord of the Rings several times before he was happy with it!!)

Can you get to a point where your students know that all answers are welcomed? A point where errors are discussed as a class and learned from with no stigma attached?

We like to call this a Fail Safe classroom. Here’s a suitably retro gif to demonstrate what we mean…


Someone once said that it’s ironic that although we often think that creativity comes from mistakes, this is actually a mistake. Yes, many inventions and discoveries have come about directly through errors, but most creativity arises from what we do with mistakes. Our reactions to them are more important than the errors themselves.

There are some great quotes on mistake making and dealing with failure out there, but they’re pretty pointless if you don’t allow your students a) opportunities to make mistakes safely and b) discussion time to talk about how to deal with them. Have you ever planned a lesson where failure was inevitable? Try it. Get them to come up with five wrong (but feasible) ways to answer a maths problem. In doing so, they’ll identify and learn from the potential errors they would have made.

John Wooden was worth listening to. He was an American basketball player and coach, and, it seems to us, was a wise man. In his TED Talk on the difference between winning and success (which you can watch at the bottom of this post), he talked about the journey being better than the end.

Our classrooms should reflect that. The process of mistake-making, learning, restarting and improving is as much to be celebrated as the end product. Post-It notes, planning sheets, constructive peer criticism and scribbles on whiteboards are to be valued as much as the neat final draft, the sketchbook as much as the final painting.

Why? Because the finished product is a direct result of what has gone before. If we don’t sing the praises of editing, re-drafting, evaluating, hypothesising and testing, then your students’ only experience of an amazing learning journey will be when Gary Barlow talks about it on X Factor.

To quote John Wooden directly, “If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything. I’m positive that a doer makes mistakes.” Let’s value doers.

And, if you find that you need some help in getting Fail Safe’s message across to your students, take a leaf out of ‘Bop It’s book. If you’re not familiar with it, ‘Bop It’ is an audio game/toy where you have to pull a lever, twist a knob, spin a disc or ‘bop it’, depending on the manic instructions given by the toy in its irritatingly enthusiastic voice. There aren’t too many lessons you can learn from a talking toy, but here’s one. When you make a mistake and go crashing out of the game, ‘Bop It’ announces cheerfully “dude — uh, that’s not good!” We’re not recommending you greet a draft essay with that, but if you’re desparate, you might like to try another of ‘Bop It’s annoyingly-glib catchphrases…

Do it the same … but better!”

You can find out more about Fail Safe here and, when you get a moment, here’s Mr Wooden…


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