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Tackling the complexity of failure with GCSE resit learners - Rachel Arnold

Rachel Arnold, English lecturer and English teaching and learning coach at Solihull College & University Centre and Research Further scholar

“I’ve already failed before, and I had tried really hard. Why try again? It’s too difficult to keep being told you’re not good enough, because you keep failing.” This reaction was expressed after results day by a student who had failed their English GCSE for the third time, and is all too familiar for our English and maths resit learners in FE. One third of teenagers in the UK find themselves in a position of “failure” after their GCSEs in year 11, if they do not achieve a grade 4 or above.

Fortunately, FE can be a productive place of second chances and further development for these learners, but what are we doing about the potentially damaging impact of such an early exposure to failure for these young people? To what extent are we teaching our learners to positively learn from failure?

A resit learner’s experience in FE can be heavily clouded by feelings of inadequacy from day one, simply due to the label of having failed their English or Maths. The binary nature of our assessments, resulting in a pass or fail, can perpetuate this damaging identity of failure our young people are too often faced with; either you are good at Maths or English, or you are not. GCSE resit courses can be seen as a complex space, sometimes deepening the roots of the cycle of failure, especially when a main condition of funding of a learner’s place on their course is the requirement to repeat the very thing that they failed at. Their time is spent repeating something they struggle to grasp, with very little experience of success. The resit course itself can result in second, third or even fourth time failure for our young people. Therefore, the hopes of further educating our young learners can sometimes be shattered and made seemingly impossible due to the barriers created by repeated failure.

Such exposure to failure habitually presents itself in the form of a failure or fixed mindset (Dweck, 2006), with multiple barriers to learning and engagement. We can’t necessarily change the current assessment practice and framework, but we can explore how to best engage the disengaged and remove these barriers to learning. This has been the focus of my research, as I delve into the depths of the complexity of failure and what can consequently be done in an attempt to reverse the damaging and debilitating state of failure.

There are many known concepts which connect to the exploration of the failure barrier, namely: self-efficacy, self-determination theory, education aspiration, self-perception as a learner. Yet, in the unique context of a resit course, there are more layers to remove. Here are two ideas to reflect on when attempting to remove the negativity and disengagement from a resit course.

A transformation from reaction to reframing

How often do we apologise to our learners for having to do their GCSE again, or express thoughts such as “you just need to get through this year and pass, then you won’t need to do it again?” These negativities are simply reactions which need to be reframed to become helpful and encouraging for resit learners.

A shift from reaction to failure to reframing failure should be considered in order to connect resit learners to their assertive power as an agent of learning and their own personal development. They are not a product of their circumstances, a failure, but they are able to act for themselves and to create and participate in transformative learning experiences. This instils a confidence of self and a power that comes by not just reacting to their state of failure, but being transformed by it, actively converting it into powerful learning, in and outside of the classroom. Failure is an inevitable aspect of life itself, and should therefore be a regular and familiar feature of any classroom. If the classroom plays a critical role in preparing and arming us for the realities and challenges of the world then we should be readily inviting failure into the classroom sphere.

Instead of focussing efforts on how to react to the moments of adversity and failure (resilience education) I think it is essential to make failure part of the everyday learning experience by normalising it and replacing the negativity of failure with a more productive tool. Perhaps the question we should be asking ourselves as practitioners is “to what extent am I prepared to fully encourage risk-taking and failure in my classroom?”. I am often preoccupied with the fear of reminding my learners that they failed the course before, but perhaps this is what needs to be embraced and reframed, so that the normalisation of failure can become a transformative power, breaking down the barrier it once was.

One school of thought agrees that it is the negative perception of failure that triggers the negative emotions and immobilising effects on learners, but that failure should be perceived as an understood component of tasks and therefore is productive in nature as it is a necessary part of reaching a desired outcome (Mills & Watson, 2021). Encouraging “productive failure” involves focussing on what has been learned and overcome, instead of what is still lacking.

Engagement through empathy

It is evident that empathy is essential in effective teaching, in being able to help learners make sense of things (McIntyre, 2000). Yet, the ability to authentically relate to our learners is very difficult when we have most likely embarked on different educational and life journeys to them. One of my students recently remarked to me: “but you don’t know what this is like, because you probably passed all of your exams in school. You don’t know what it’s like to really struggle with learning.”

In some ways, my student is absolutely correct, I have had very different experiences to them; there is an empathy gap. So how do we bridge this gap which may seem vast and unconquerable? Perhaps we simply need to demonstrate some humility and vulnerability in the classroom, to show that failing at something or finding something difficult is normal and needed for growth. Do we share with our learners the things that we have struggled to learn? Are we exemplifying resilience and sharing what we are continually learning?

Try to find ways in which your learners can teach you. Maybe it’s a simple skill that they have mastered or a talent they have. Allow them to become the expert teachers and you to experience being a vulnerable learner again. I have made this a core part of my teaching and the impact has been incredible as engagement soars and attainment starts to increase. I am continuing to research this concept in diverse ways and believe the teacher/student dynamic to be symbiotic in nature, whereby vulnerability, authenticity and empathy emerge, as failure, apathy and incapability dissipate.

So, what really is failure? Surely it is just as much a learning experience as success is, but do our resit learners know that?

The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.