Back to school time. Backpack – check. PE kit – check. Slide rule…huh?

Probably the first thing to pack in your virtual school kit is the link to the Kahn Academy. Kahn Academy is to education what Amazon is to book sales and eBay is to attic clearing. And Salman Khan’s brilliant TED talk includes its own tip on the importance of embracing failure in the educational process…

  • Fall off that bicycle. Do it as long as necessary until you have mastery. The traditional model, it penalizes you for experimentation and failure, but does not expect mastery. We encourage you to experiment. We encourage you to fail, but we expect mastery.”

One of the parts of the lecture that most intrigued me was his section on tracking progress of pupils…

  • “So when you talk about self-paced learning, it makes sense for everyone — in education-speak, differentiated learning — but it’s kind of crazy when you see it in a classroom. Because every time we’ve done this, in every classroom we’ve done, over and over again, if you go five days into it, there’s a group of kids who’ve raced ahead and there’s a group of kids who are a little bit slower. And in a traditional model, if you did a snapshot assessment, you say, ‘These are the gifted kids, these are the slow kids. Maybe they should be tracked differently. Maybe we should put them in different classes.’ But when you let every student work at their own pace — and we see it over and over and over again — you see students who took a little bit [of] extra time on one concept or the other, but once they get through that concept, they just race ahead. And so the same kids that you thought were slow six weeks ago, you now would think are gifted. And we’re seeing it over and over and over again. And it makes you really wonder how much all of the labels maybe a lot of us have benefited from were really just due to a coincidence of time.”

This volatility of success and failure is something I have witnessed time and again as a coach for the Sir William Borlase Grammar School rowing team. I know, and I tell the novice Year 9s when they first come on, “Some of the best rowers among you will not be the best in a few years, and some of the worst rowers will be the best on the team in the same time. I can never tell who are going to make the shifts, I just know it will always happen.” That embrace of the “worst” knowing some do become the “best” is a lesson fostered by my own rowing coach, Harry Parker.

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