Friday, December 27, 2019

Failing forward. Do we really mean that in education?

In education we talk a lot about encouraging students and teachers to take risks. We pontificate on the value of learning through failure. We try to model what failure and learning through failure look like whenever we make a mistake. We talk about developing grit, promoting perseverance, and building stamina even though nearly everything in our educational culture, at least in the United States, screams that failure, and even error, is nearly catastrophic. That made me think about how we need to design learning experiences that optimize error and even failure. And then I got to thinking about the differences between making a mistake and actual failure.

Teachers make mistakes all the time. Teachers make mistakes while teaching, when they type up assignments, when they assign stuff, etc. They recover by saying, "Oops. That's the wrong web site." or "That's the wrong page number; I meant to say. . .". Students simply adjust to the mistake and the correction. There is no red pencil swooping down to mark a big X on the teacher's forehead. There are no points taken off that teacher's teaching grade for the day.

Kids make mistakes on homework all the time. Some are unintentional; some are because they don't know or don't know any better. However, for the students there IS a red pencil (or its stand-in) swooping down to mark a big X next to the error and to deduct points. In some cases, students are allowed a do-over; their own version of "I meant to say. . ." or "I meant to do. . .". In many cases there is no opportunity for correction. And so students are then penalized for their mistakes.

And that means they learn that mistakes are bad. They learn they lose points for mistakes. Mistakes that may have been unintentional, or mistakes they made because they did not know or did not understand. They are penalized for the error as well as the lack of information or knowledge or the lack of understanding. And what do they learn from that? Especially if there is no opportunity to correct the error, to clarify or correct their learning, to fill in the gaps? They learn that making a mistake makes them a loser of sorts. And they learn that not only from the big X next to each error, but they learn that from their classmates who gloat when they made few or no errors and from the shame of their classmates who have done as badly or worse.

Sure, those mistakes could be viewed as failures: failure to remember, failure to understand, failure to express themselves correctly, failure to parrot the correct answer, failure to complete, failure to. . . . Will students view those failures, especially a series of failures in the same or different content areas as FAIL: first attempt in learning? Or will students view one or more failures as an indictment of their abilities as students, as learners?

I've seen middle and high school students exhibit no interest in retaking a test or redoing a homework assignment. When asked why they won't take advantage of the offer, they usually shrug. I've taken the shrug to mean one of several things, and typically along the lines of "What's the point?" If I were able to sit with any of those students to ask more about their reluctance, I bet I would hear a litany of penalized mistakes--bad test scores and marked up homework--from preceding school years, all of which leads to believing there is no point in trying and there is no point in trying again.

After years of failure, students see themselves as failures.

After years of marked up mistakes and low grades, students see themselves as stupid or incapable or dumb. They don't see the point and they don't believe the teacher who tries to tell them otherwise because they've been hearing differently for years.

This article about the key to optimal learning reinforces so much of what I believe to be true. I need to contextualize this with two anecdotes. The first is about a second grader who got so frustrated by her inability to subtract two-digit numbers that she threw her pencil, slumped her head in her hands, and muttered, "I'm just stupid." Second. Grade. I retrieved her pencil and put my head down close to hers and told her that no one expected her to come to second grade already knowing how to do this math. I explained to her that the purpose of school is to learn to do things like subtract two-digit numbers. She looked up at me with a thin veneer of belief that maybe, just maybe, I spoke the truth.

Please note that I had to explain to her that she was in school to learn. 

The second anecdote is personal. I was one of those students who grew up believing I wasn't "good at math." My mother also said she wasn't good at math, even though she was a very good cook and baker, and she was the one who managed the household finances. Apparently none of that is math, but I believed her and didn't see the obvious at the time. It wasn't until much, much later when I was thinking about a Master's in computer science (to legitimize the near decade I already had as a software engineer/systems analyst) and I was taking a course in differential equations, a course I ended up not needing. I found myself intrigued by the mathematics and, as an English major, I was a bit horrified. I felt like I was being unfaithful to myself. And then later when I was teaching basic math to college students, I realized that their journey had been much like mine in that we had failed to realize we were in school to learn the things we didn't know or understand as well as the things we thought we loved and about which we wanted to learn more.
As a learner, the thing to focus on is to make sure you’re pushing yourself and getting into this region of intermediate difficulty where you are making mistakes and getting things wrong and accepting that’s part of how you learn.
In the article about optimal learning, Robert Wilson, a researcher at the University of Arizona, speaks of accepting that getting things wrong is part of how we learn. He goes on to say that "We reward perfection maybe too much. . . Errors and mistakes are just a part of life and as we’ve shown here, a crucial part of learning."

If we--educators and others--truly believe that failure is an integral part of learning and doing, we need to build assessments with that in mind; we need to create learning opportunities with that in mind; we need to allow space in our work environments with that mind.

We need to be crystal clear about the parameters for that failure, for that risk, for those errors and mistakes.

We need to be crystal clear that while errors and mistakes are indeed part of learning, there will come a time when errors cross the threshold of acceptable risk, which means we have to be crystal clear about what we mean by "risk" and what constitutes acceptable risk, whether in learning or anywhere else.

And if we mean that failure is an integral part of learning and doing, and if we build that way of learning and doing into our day-to-day teaching and students' day-to-day learning, then they will be more willing to embrace what they learn through failure and become more attuned to what failure and error and risk actually mean.

And that will be worth the risk.

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