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F.A.I.L. = First Attempt In Learning
We see this saying in classrooms all over. And I’ve never liked it…
One reason is because we rarely seem to ask the important question of First Attempt In Learning What? First attempt in learning some rote memorization task? First attempt in learning something we put on a digital worksheet? First attempt in learning some procedure that we’ll likely never use again? [but, hey, at least it leads to the next procedure that we’ll also probably never use again!]
I understand why the allegedly-motivational saying is posted on teachers’ walls. It’s a cute way of saying to students, “Don’t give up. Keep trying and you’ll get there.” It fits in nicely with the growth mindsets that we’re trying to help students adopt. [side note: ever notice how educators are usually eager to preach about the value of growth mindsets for students but often struggle to live that value in their own work?] But maybe the reason our students are ‘failing’ is because they rightfully see that so much of the work that we ask them to do is pretty meaningless and so they simply try to opt out. It’s not that they’re struggling, it’s that they’re rational.
Which leads me to another reason: a F.A.I.L. poster on our walls doesn’t absolve our responsibility to do better by our kids. We can’t keep pretending that such a sign means anything when we regularly undercut it with uninspiring work. So what if we give students multiple opportunities for do-overs or retakes? So what if we preach about ‘resilience’ and ‘grit?’ Is allowing / requiring / forcing a student to be ‘successful’ on work that had little value in the first place the opposite of ‘failing?’
No amount of platitudes will ever make up for the hard work we need to do to transform students’ learning experiences. You know what motivates students? It’s not the cutesy laminated F.A.I.L. poster. It’s the regular opportunity to do meaningful and interesting work. The next time we walk into a classroom with one of these signs, let’s add the W and start having a different conversation…
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