Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Foster Failure and Turn Frowns Upside Down

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Foster Failure and Turn Frowns Upside Down

Article excerpt

Fear of looking foolish can hamper learning, so combat negative emotions by encouraging your students to try, try again

Most teachers would consider themselves adept at reading students' emotions. Our pastoral duties dictate that we need to be able to spot potential problems and help to find solutions. Yet how often do we apply this skill of reading emotions to our teaching?

The answer is not often enough. Learning is not only a cognitive process but also an emotional one. Emotional states experienced by students can impact on achievement, with negative emotions such as anxiety and fear having a profound effect on wellbeing and, consequently, academic success.

Anxiety, for example, has been found to have a detrimental effect on working memory (the short-term store used for activities such as mental arithmetic and problem-solving). Furthermore, research has found that anxiety over high-stakes exams leads to lower mean scores.

Negative emotions narrow our cognitive processes, activating more basic, instinctual patterns of behaviour. Fear causes us to withdraw from an anxiety-provoking situation and avoid such situations in the future. Consequently, fear of failure (which is more prevalent in situations involving high-stakes testing) motivates learners to disengage from situations where failure is a possible outcome.

Failure is often interpreted as a direct assault on our intelligence, something that must be avoided at all costs in order to safeguard our self-esteem. Young people begin to find it much more preferable to be seen as lazy than stupid, leading them to employ strategies to explain away failure or deliberately sabotage their academic outcomes.

Beneath the bravado

Teachers need to become much better at spotting negative emotions and finding strategies to deal with them. Unfortunately, identifying such emotions can prove problematic, especially with boys, who have a tendency to conceal their anxieties and fears beneath bravado.

Boys display a greater predisposition towards failing to complete work in order to avoid the possibility of a bad grade or negative feedback. Some bright boys will do their best to fly under the radar, while less able boys might simply disengage from the process, thus avoiding the possibility of failure.

Although girls will also apply these tactics, in general they display greater pre-emptive tendencies. For example, when handing in work, they might say it's probably wrong or they didn't really understand the task. …

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