To Err Is Divine: Constructive Failure and Its Place in Language Learning

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Christopher Jelen, Classics

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2021

After teaching Latin 1, the first semester of Latin, and Greek 15, the intensive Greek workshop, I noticed a recurring problem that arose early in these courses. Many students were deeply uncomfortable making mistakes in class and would avoid situations where they might risk doing so. I also noticed that these students tended to leave questions blank on assessments at a higher rate than other students and seemed to resist making educated guesses or trusting their instincts. This fear of making mistakes is especially problematic for language classes because mistake-making is an integral component of language acquisition. Moreover, these courses are relatively fast-paced and it isn’t uncommon for graduate students and students with some previous knowledge of Latin and/or Greek to take them. These additional factors tended to exacerbate feelings of inadequacy and the fear of mistakes among less confident students.

When I taught Latin 1 and Greek 15 again in 2020, I decided to reframe mistake-making and failure in a more constructive way and to build into the curriculum opportunities for students to practice dealing with mistakes productively. I emphasized early on that mistakes were not things to be ashamed of and avoided, but opportunities for analysis. Anytime we engaged with a potential mistake, I prompted students to ask themselves not just what the mistake was, but why this particular mistake was easy to make and what information it could give us about potential ambiguities in the language. I incorporated this reframing of failure early in the course and introduced it in ways that allowed students to gain comfort in confronting their own mistakes incrementally. First, I made sure that whenever I made mistakes of my own, I didn’t chastise myself, but instead I took a moment to talk through what may have triggered the mistake and what the mistake could tell us (e.g., if it was an uncommon word form, a form easily confused with another, etc.). Then, I started giving students practice sentences that included an intentional mistake and asked them to identify it and then explain what made that mistake likely to occur and what useful information it could give us. 

Especially in the first few weeks of the semester, I found ways of asking questions of the class that allowed students to answer anonymously or semi-anonymously. This was especially easy while conducting classes remotely in 2020. On Zoom I was able to solicit answers from the class through anonymous polls or through direct private messages in the chat. I found that students were much more likely to answer questions when they could answer in a way that other students couldn’t see, especially early in the semester. As students became more comfortable engaging with mistakes productively and answering questions (semi-)anonymously, I started incorporating more opportunities for students to engage openly with their own mistakes and those of others in small and large group work.

After implementing this reframing of failure and mistake-making, I found that students became more comfortable answering questions openly in class. They were less averse both to the possibility of making mistakes and to the mistakes themselves. I also noticed that as the semester went on there were fewer students leaving questions blank on assessments than there had been in previous years. When we started reading passages of continuous Latin or Greek near the end of the semester, I found that students were more comfortable making educated guesses about unfamiliar vocabulary or aspects of grammar than in previous classes.