Choosing How We Fail

This is roughly what happened:

“Sorry,” said a young woman, interrupting my friend and me. “I’ve my lost my purse, and I’m trying to scrape enough money together to get a bus home. I only need another pound.” Immediately, my friend reached into his pocket and handed over a £1 coin.

“Best of luck,” said my friend, and the woman smiled gratefully and walked away.

“That might be a scam,” I said. “I’m sure I’ve read somewhere about people making a packet doing that. We’ll probably see her later on still asking people for money.”

“We might,” he said, “but there are two ways to be wrong in that situation. Either I give her the money, she’s lying and I’m wrong through being naive, or I don’t give her the money, she’s telling the truth and I’m wrong through being cynical. In one case, I’ve been scammed. In the other, I’ve missed a chance to give help to someone who needed it. I know which mistake I can live with.”


This brief conversation from over a decade ago occasionally springs to mind when I see a particularly bitter EduTwitter spat on the subject of behaviour in schools. When teachers discuss behaviour management, we seem to readily ignore or forget our own personal relationship with it. I think that the hidden foundation of this debate is found in our answer to the following question: What type of failure do we each find easiest to stomach?

Despite the chaotic reality, we are usually left with a fairly simple choice whenever we wish to tackle most challenging behavior: Do we adapt the environment to help the student, or do we help the student adapt to the environment? For example, imagine that you have a student who struggles to concentrate for even brief periods of time. It has been suggested that he might benefit from a book to doodle in during lessons. Do you follow the suggestion (i.e. adapt the environment) or do you encourage and nudge him to undergo the difficult process of improving his ability to concentrate (i.e. help the student to adapt)? Neither answer is necessarily correct. Naturally, the optimal choice – if there even is one – depends on the student and the exact circumstances, but my point is that we can never know for sure which one is the right choice in any given moment. Err on the side of adapting the environment, and you might have missed an opportunity to develop the student’s capabilities. Err on the side of helping the student to adapt, and you might put him through a demoralizing, unsuccessful struggle. The vast majority of us have failed in both ways countless times. I contend that our views on behavior management are affected by which type of failure we find easier to stomach, and that it is this gut reaction that partly makes the debate around behavior so emotive.

For the sake of argument, I would like you to consider a spectrum of attitudes to behavior management. At one extreme are those that go far beyond all expectations to adapt the environment so that every student feels entirely at ease and ready to learn. At the other end of the spectrum are those that set a consistent, exacting standard for all students. Let’s call it the soft touch-hard bastard spectrum:

Is there a Nobel prize for sociology? Asking for a friend.

Now, I want to make it clear that I have no interest in advocating for any given point on this spectrum as the right one for all teachers. I haven’t anything like the experience required for that. Nor do I think that many teachers, if any, operate at the extremes of this spectrum. Just go with me on this for a moment.

Let me introduce a hard bastard: Like everyone, she makes mistakes with her behavior management, but the failures she fears most are when she underestimates a student’s ability to change. If in doubt, she expects a student to learn new, beneficial habits, and she hates the idea of missing an opportunity to do this. Most of her failures come when she overestimates a student’s ability to change. The negative consequences of these failures are felt deeply by a small number of students.

And now here’s a soft touch: Like everyone, she makes mistakes with her behavior management, but the mistakes she fears most are when she lets a vulnerable student experience demoralising failure. If in doubt, she adapts the learning environment – rules and all – so that the chances of failure are minimized. Most of her failures come when she underestimates a student’s ability to change. The negative consequences of these failures are not felt deeply, but they affect a large number of students.

While it’s tempting to conclude this blog-post by saying something comforting about the middle ground, I’m not going to. I’d consider myself to be somewhere in the middle of this spectrum, and all this means is that I tend to experience a fairly equal mix of both types of failure. Naturally, this is all a gross simplification. Teachers are able to reduce the frequency and magnitude of their failures with experience, and every teacher has moments of being a soft touch and a hard bastard. So why write this? When discussing behaviour management, accepting the weaknesses of one’s own approach can be seen as unnecessarily ceding ground. However, I believe that healthy, productive debate relies on it. None of us are perfect, we all fail and the teachers who have a different view of behavior management to us might just have a different tolerance for the two main types of failure we all experience. Perhaps if they were forced to choose the other type of failure more often, teaching would be unbearable for them.

Like a friend once explained to me, perhaps all we can do is decide which mistakes we can live with.

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