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  • Writer's pictureClare Lloyd

Learning from Defeat

As any of you who follow me will know, I enjoy my sport and I have encouraged my kids to take up sport and music as well (sadly none of them have particularly followed my footsteps in pursuing religious studies and philosophy!). I spent the last weekend in a leisure centre in Wales waiting for my middle son whilst he got his Ninja on, competing in a Karate tournament. Stick with me now, as this is highly relevant to Religious Studies teaching!

Noah was a shy child when he was young, and he is not especially outgoing now. He asked to join a karate group when he was in year 2 and I was unconvinced that he would enjoy it because he had been so reluctant to participate in anything I had taken him to in the past.

However, when I watched him yesterday, it struck me how far he had come. He is now an assistant sensei (coach) for his club. He was walking around the hall, collecting the little newbies for their Kumite (fights) or their katas (set karate movement patterns), he helped them get ready, tying the belts for the smallest and sitting in the coaching corner whilst they fought, calling out advice, support, and encouragement. He guided parents who did not know what kit their children needed or where they were supposed to go

. He did not fight yesterday because he is still recovering from a head injury from his last comp when he failed to block an illegal kick to the head from his opponent and was knocked out. However, he competed in his kata and won a silver medal, being beaten only by a veteran.

I tell you all of this, not to gloat (although I do feel very proud of my son) but because it struck me just how far he has come. I feel his journey should be inspiring, not because he is winning, but because of how much he has had to lose to get where he is today. Noah has been to endless competitions. We have sat in sports hall after sports hall, coming away defeated and glum, he has watched his teammates as they win their bling and wondered whether he would ever be successful. He is still going through this journey now. He has yet to win his own gold medal and still has work to do with his kumite. The reason I am proud is because he does not let failure defeat him, He keeps on trying and his progress is now showing so clearly.

Our students are often encouraged to aim for the top grades and so they should be. We give them model essays and constantly tell them what they need to do to improve. We are the example of success in our subject. We have degrees and successful jobs. In my case, they know I write textbooks and about my role as a senior examiner. It is easy for many of them to feel like they will never get there. It is such a long journey that they have ahead of them. Achieving what you want is not always easy and, in our subject, if you are surrounded by people who seem to be doing better or seem naturally gifted, it is easy to feel like you can’t ever do well. It takes time and most importantly, it takes being prepared to weather the difficult bits the times when you get a bad grade, or you can’t understand a theory, or don’t feel like reading a book. Sometimes these periods last for a long stretch. Constantly trying to practice, even when it is most difficult is the way to get better, but we don’t always feel like it is helping.

I think what we should be encouraging in our students, is not perfection but resilience. I have learned so much about teaching from watching my kids sport coaches and music tutors over the years. They get the boys to practice the same little skill over and over until it is right. They run drills with them regularly and teach them to be gracious in defeat. This year, my goal with my classes is not simply to hone a perfect essay technique but is to teach them that success in our subject comes when you engage in practice and that it will take them time. Sometimes this does require reading a text that you are not in the mood to read, trying to write an essay that you do not feel confident or comfortable in writing or coming to a workshop for help when you would rather do something else. But it also means when we fail at any of those things, it does not mean that you are no good at Religious Studies. It means that you pick yourself up and have another go. And keep having another go constantly trying to make that small bit of progress towards your own, personal, goal.

The ways in which I have been going about this recently is by encouraging drills with my students at the start of lessons. We drill key vocabulary through the use of mini whiteboards. I usually have five key words that I want them to know, I give them the definitions and they have to identify the word. They hold up their white boards with the word on them and those who get the words wrong are encouraged to jot down their mistakes to practice at home before the next drill. Their failure is an opportunity for learning.

When we have done a timed essay (roughly once per fortnight) part of our feedback session involved identifying one specific target for their next essay. Their grade might not go up next time, but I am interested in whether their particular target has been met. If their target was to refer to a relevant scholar, have they done that this time? If their target was to include some key vocabulary, are they trying to do this now? If they are, then regardless of their overall mark, this is to be praised and encouraged, then a new target found. If they are still struggling, then they can retain that target and continue to work on it. We use an exam wrapper that it developed from examples I had seen online. This helps them to think about whether they have tried to prepare in any way to improve their target since their last timed essay. The exam wrapper is simply a tick box exercise but they are asked to think of specific and practical ways that they can address their target for the future - maybe if they needed to stop muddling up their scholars, they made an effort to colour code a chart which had relevant scholars and their arguments laid out clearly with dual coding to help.

Each student gradually learns to set their own SMART targets and consider what they, as unique individuals, should work to improve. If they can idenify their own achievable and realistic goals, then they can start to progress and be successful on their own terms, something they can only do by failing first.

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