Failure in the Classroom Sparks Innovation with Impact (SocialStory)

A great failure lesson from my Celebrating Failure series over at SocialStory

Whether a Founder, CEO, or entry-level employee, everyone fails. Learning from that failure can often lead to greater success, and change lives, which is why we cover lessons from failure here at SocialStory.

Devanik Saha is a Teach for India (TFI) Fellow who had to learn from his failures in the classroom early on in the job. He has since been awarded for his innovation in the classroom. Devanik is now in the second year of his fellowship as a Grade 4 teacher in a low-income municipal school in Sangam Vihar, an unauthorized area in New Delhi.

Tell us about how you failed in your first year as a TFI Fellow.

A diagnostic test at the beginning of the school year for my Grade 3 class showed that my students were three years behind their grade level in English and Maths. Most of them could not even solve a basic addition question, which really shocked me. So, I set an ambitious vision that they would achieve a grade jump of four years within that academic year.

I taught my class at least one to two new topics each day, and I thought they were showing improvement. But when my program manager observed my classroom two-months into the school year, she came to me with discouraging results. To my horror, my students were committing grave conceptual errors in Maths. My program manager and I realized that my students were not able to keep up with my teaching pace, and I wasn’t focusing enough on the basic concepts. My students were rote learning and not critically thinking. Then upon further discussion, I realized that they were not able to keep up with my teaching pace and I was focusing excessively on the algorithmic questions rather than concepts. I was extremely disappointed that I lost 2 months of my supposed hard work and I had to start back at the basics again.

Although I was extremely dejected to see my efforts go down the drain, at the same time, I found it as an opportunity to learn from failure, and I was lucky enough to realize and address my failure early in the year.

What did you change in the classroom to address this failure? What did you learn from this experience?

I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to improve upon my failure as soon as it came to my attention. I decided that low-cost teaching aids and activity-based learning in the classroom would help the students think more critically. I used egg crates to teach multiplication, kidney beans to teach addition, and straws to teach place values. My failure prompted me to think outside the box, leading to my invention of a low-cost “Maths in a Box” model, which costs around Rs 120. For this innovation, I was selected for the STIR Fellowship Program as one of the Top 25 Educational Innovators in Delhi bySTIR Education, a UK-based NGO.

My failure turned into a success and has brought my creativity to the forefront. I’ll never be afraid to fail again, because if I hadn’t failed, I wouldn’t have had the motivation to come up with my low-cost Maths model, which is now being scaled and replicated across schools for low-income students.

I also learned that one needs to carefully examine a vision before working towards it. Since that failure, I constantly revisit my lesson plans and class’s progress to see whether I am teaching the students conceptually or not. In the past 15 months of teaching, I’ve helped 28 students achieve 1.2 years growth in their learning level.

What advice would you give to others experiencing failure?

Try Try Try! Fail Fail Fail! The term “Entrepreneurship” should be “Failurepreneurship” because to be an entrepreneur, one has to try at least 100 different things and ideas before one of them actually works wonders. History has proven that famous innovators like Thomas Edison and Benjamin Franklin took years for just one invention, and they failed so many times in the process. Never be afraid to try new ideas and fail in the process.

Why do you believe it’s important to talk about failure?

I’ve organized informal sessions for TFI Fellows to discuss their failures because if we just talk about successes in our classrooms, we would never be able to cater to the weaknesses we have. If we keep celebrating only the top kids in our classes, we would never be able to work with those kids who are having difficulty keeping up. A teacher has the responsibility to ensure that every child attains an excellent education and thus, I truly believe that it is imperative to talk about failures. Not just teachers, but CEOs, CFOs, and managers should always have monthly board meetings to talk about failures.

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