There’s a lot of blogging, writing and research (and anecdotal stories) out there these days about trying to foster the value in students for the appreciation in failing. I even wrote a blog entry two years ago entitled “modeling proper mistake-making” way before I read anything or watched any videos on the Internet. From teaching with PBL for over 17 years, I am a pro at making mistakes and watching students struggle with the concept of accepting the idea of learning from their mistakes. This is so much easier said than done, but it is clearly something that grow to love even if only for a short time.
Last April, I had the pleasure of hearing Ed Burger at the NCTM national conference where he spoke about having students in his college-level classes required to fail before they could earn an A in his class. In his August 2012 essay “Teaching to Fail” from Inside Higher Ed (posted at 3:00 am, which I thought was kind of funny), he talks about attempting to make a rubric for the “quality of failure” on how well a student had failed at a task. I thought this was an interesting concept. I mean, in order to fail well, can’t you just really screw up, like not do it at all? Prof. Burger states that allowing students to freely reflect on their “false starts and fruitful iterations” as well as how their understanding “evolved through the failures” can be extremely beneficial. He also states:
“To my skeptical colleagues who wonder if this grading scheme can be exploited as a loophole to reward unprepared students, I remind them that we should not create policies in the academy that police students, instead we should create policies that add pedagogical value and create educational opportunity.”
Last year for the first time, I tried a similar experiment wherein I gave students an assignment to write a paper in my honors geometry class. They had to choose from three theorems that we were not going to prove in class. However, it was clear that they could obviously just look up the proof on the Internet or in a textbook or somewhere, since they clearly have been proven before. The proof was only 10 or 20% of their grade. The majority of the paper’s grade was writing up the trials and failures in writing the proof themselves. This proved to be one of the most exciting projects of the year and the students ate it up. I even told them that I didn’t care if they looked up the proof as long as they cited it, but I still had kids coming to me to show my how they were failing because they wanted a hint in order to figure it out themselves. It was amazing.
This past week I showed my classes Kathryn Schultz’ TED talk entitled “On Being Wrong” in which she talked about the ever popular dilemma of the Coyote who chases the Road Runner, usually off a cliff.
My students loved her analogy of the “feeling of being wrong” to when the Coyote runs off the cliff and then looks down and of course, has to fall in order to be in agreement with the laws of gravity. However, I proposed a different imaginary circumstance. Wouldn’t it be great if we could run off the cliff, i.e. take that risk, and before looking down and realizing that vulnerability and scariness, just run right back on and do something else? No falling, no one gets hurt, no one looks stupid because you get flattened when you hit the ground? Maybe that’s not the “feeling of being wrong” but it’s the “feeling of learning.”
Next blog entry on creating the classroom culture for “defying gravity.”