Is it time to rethink success?

I think we can agree that modern society places a lot of emphasis on “success”, “being successful”, “succeeding”. It’s a heavily loaded concept with deep rooted connotations, and it doesn’t always feel attainable.

I often think about the concept of success in relation to my students.

What does an English language learner’s marker of success look like? How does an English language learner quantify his or her success? What does success actually mean to an English language learner?

These are questions I ask myself regularly. It’s a topic that interests me enormously. I dedicated a whole blog post to it last year.

What, I wonder, is an English language learner’s definition of success?

The dominant education systems provide very clear parameters for students regarding success. From Elementary school to university to adult education in all its forms success is defined in very simple terms: Exam results.

Exams, assessments, and tests allow students (and teachers) to quantify ability or knowledge. A mark out of 10, a percentage, an A, B, or C, tells a student how “good” they are, how “well” they are doing.

There’s nothing terribly wrong with this: it’s a safe, and some would argue proven, way for students and teachers to evaluate progress.

When I consider this model in relation to English language learners however, two questions arise for me.

ONE: If a student is successful in their exams, will that guarantee them success when it comes to “real life” demands?
TWO: If we place so much emphasis on the outcome, the mark, the result, are we neglecting to value something else?

I recently watched a lecture by a British comedian (Deborah Frances-White) in which she raised many interesting points, one in particular stood out for me.

Adults are very reluctant to do things that they don’t think they’ll be good at.

Think about that!

We tend only to participate when we know we have a good chance of doing well at the activity in question.

This seems extremely limiting! And it makes me question how well the traditional education system prepares students for life outside the safety of the classroom environment.

How can a language learner be helped to make the transition from doing well in an exam that he or she takes in the classroom to participating  in a high-stakes professional setting? And what about those that don’t do “well” in their exams?!

How can students go from confidently (or not!) answering a question in an oral test to confidently (or not!) putting forward their opinion on a conference call when their boss is listening? What about volunteering to give the sales presentation to the potential clients who are visiting the office next month?!

If students don’t have much experience in communicating in a professional setting and they can’t guarantee they’ll do a “good” job they will naturally try and avoid any situation that demands they use the English that perhaps they feel insecure about.

If they won’t try it how can they practise it? How can they get comfortable at doing it???

I would like to suggest it’s by RETHINKING WHAT SUCCESS ACTUALLY MEANS.

In one of her talks Deborah Frances-White invites an audience to consider the reaction of a room full of children to the question “Can I have a volunteer please?”

We all know the answer!

Children will do anything to get picked to be the volunteer.

How do adults respond to the same question?

They will do everything NOT to get picked to volunteer.

WHY?

Because while an adult is assessing how they might perform at the unknown task, a child is thinking “Whoop!! Pick me!! I really want a go!!

A child values “THE GO”.

A child doesn’t concern itself with how well he or she will do at the task. A child doesn’t think about accomplishing the aim of the exercise. A child doesn’t care about being “good”, they care about having a go! They just want a turn. They just want the opportunity to try.

A child measures their success by how many “GOES” they had. A successful day is a day full of “GOES”.

There’s so much to be learned from this.

We need to stop measuring ourselves purely based on performance, we need to value (and ENJOY) the act of having a go!

So here’s my challenge for you this year:

Instead of assessing yourself in terms of performance, can you give yourself marks for the amount of opportunities you take?

Can you congratulate yourself every time you have a go?

Can you value participation over outcome?

Can your success in 2018 be measured by the number of goes you had and not by what you accomplished?