Fail Early, Fail Often: Learning Names

Learning names this year was a bigger challenge this time around in comparison to the past few years. The first reason is that my new school is substantially bigger than my previous school, as are the class sizes. Another major reason: I’m the new guy.

The students generally know each other, so I decided the first day wasn’t actually about them learning each other’s names. I still included activities that got them interacting with each other, but I was the one that needed to learn their names. I decided the quick forty minute block on the first day was an opportunity to model my class credo: fail early, fail often.

When they walked in, I asked them their names, and what they wanted to be called. I’ve learned that these are not necessarily the same. These names were noted on my clipboard. I made a big show out of going around to each student, looking them in the eyes, and saying their name. Taking attendance then became my first opportunity to assess what I remembered. The order on the roster definitely didn’t match the order that the students entered the classroom.

I then had them line up alphabetically along the back wall. I had them all say their names one in a row. I had my reference material on the clipboard and went reverse alphabetical order. I publicly made mistakes, lots of them. Then I had them say the name of the person immediately to their left. For me learning the names, this meant that the voice saying the name was different, but the name was the same. I narrated that I wasn’t actually looking at the person saying the name – my attention was on the person whose name was being said.

I then had them get in line in order of birthday, but without any words. Once they figured out their order, I went down the line and tried to get names. I looked at my clipboard if I needed to, and I often did, but often had them just say their names back. I explained that I made them move around because I didn’t want to learn names based on who each person was next to – I needed to connect the name to the face. This ensured I was learning the right information, not an arbitrary order.

Then I had them get into two or three random orders. If there was time, I had a student go down the line reciting names. Then I went again myself, now trying not to look at the clipboard unless it was absolutely necessary. The mistakes continued to come, but I generally was having more success at this stage. I again told them that I had quizzes myself enough – it was time to let my brain do connecting behind the scenes. I emphasized that this was why cramming doesn’t tend to work: the brain is really good at organizing the information if it has the time to do so.

It was great putting myself in the position of not knowing answers and having to ask students for help. The students appeared to enjoy my genuine attempt to demonstrate how I learn information efficiently, and how essential failure is to being successful in the end.