There is no Failure, only Feedback

December 2011

At the end of the school year everybody sits formal high-pressure exams. They are a rigid but efficient a snapshot of how a person performs on a given day — the consequence being that you either pass or fail. As such, the purpose of this post is to show that really effective foreign language learning and certifcation calls for something more appropriate and constructive than such a simplistic and binary dichotomy.

Failure closes doors, feedback opens them.

In life, you can’t always control what happens and you can’t always get the results you want. But you certainly can control your reactions to those results and this is the difference between assigning failure and giving feedback.

Exams are just not a very good way of assessing a person’s true ability. I believe that teaching English is not really about exams. It is much more pragmatic than that. It is about getting students to realise that they will be using and learning English for the rest of their lives. Using it to grow as a person in the world. English is not about a one-off artificial placing between pass and fail.

The pass / fail concept is all well and good if you are studying book-based teacher-led and large-class subjects like physics or history. English is not this. If it was we may as well go back to the grammar translation method. Traditional knowledge subjects differ fundamentally to non-linear skills such as music, art, drama, sports, and modern languages.

Mistakes are the portals to discovery
~ James Joyce — a tefl teacher.

Skills require continual practice paralleled with regular, on-going, informal testing and feedback. Language learning is a process which never really ends. And that’s a beautiful thing, not a bad one. People who learn every day actually live longer and happier lives. Sorry if that’s sounds corny but it is absolutely true. That’s why I encourage students to develop daily reading habits including reading newspapers. If reading is the equivalent of feeding your mind, watching TV is the equivalent of eating KFC.

If learners appreciate all this and really love the process of learning then there really is no such thing as failure. If learners can begin to get rid of the idea of failure and embrace the idea that making mistakes is not some sort of embarrassment, but actually a helpful positive thing, they get a massive confidence boost, which engenders much better progress. You don’t fail at something if you love it.

Through The Looking Glass
Not everything is black and white.