Thursday, August 23, 2012

Failures, Mistakes and Other Learning Tools

Yesterday* on Twitter, Adam asked the question.
This started a conversation that has been bothering me since. Basically, we were trying to come up with working definitions of failure and mistake. Can either of them be fixed? Some mistakes can't, but failure also implies an ending. I don't know the answer, but I know I'm not going to get terribly hung up on the technicalities.

The whole theme was how to get kids comfortable with failing. We teach them from the beginning that it really isn't okay, so it shouldn't be much of a surprise in my classroom that they are afraid to go there.

This is never more evident in Chemistry than when we go through our first lab. It has six parts that reinforce lab skills and investigate the conservation of mass. After each part, we talk about the results and work through an analysis. More often than not, there is at least one set of data that really doesn't allow us to draw any kind of conclusion. We get to talk about precision and careful measurements and what constitutes good data. And we all get to try it again if we don't like our initial results.

Today, however, was the first day I ever had someone cry.

Part five: Does mass change when sugar and water are mixed? Her group had gained a significant amount of mass somewhere between here and there. When I called on the group to explain what they did and how they ended up with those results, it came out that they had forgotten to mass the sugar before they added it to the water. In the following discussion, I looked over, and bless her, she had her head ducked down to the table, sniffling into her lab notebook.

When I asked why she was so upset, she looked at me like I had drowned her kitten and said, "but I was WRONG!"

And I said, "SO?"

Now, my classroom can rarely described as silent, but at that moment, you could hear the hum of my hard drive. She and nearly all of her classmates stared at me like I had truly gone insane.

"What do you mean, so?" she asked. "How am I supposed to get an A in this class if I can't even get the first lab right? I have to start catching up already and apparently chemistry isn't my thing and I haven't even gotten to the hard part yet."

Oh, Honey.**

I asked her if she knew what her group had done wrong and whether or not it could be fixed. Did she think maybe she could go back and redo her lab?

"Well, yes, but..."

"Then let's go do it."

That silent thing again...

"You mean we can fix this?"

Of course, child, how do you think you are going to learn if I just cut you off now? I WANT you to understand the conservation of mass, and I want you to understand it because YOU figured it out, not because I told you it was true.

To be honest, I'm not sure they all bought into it. I don't think they believe that I am going to allow force them to do it on their own. You can see it in their eyes. "Yeah, she might let me have ONE more try. On this easy lab. What if I REALLY screw up later on? What if I try it again and STILL don't get good results. What if chemistry really isn't my thing? What if I get a B?"

I'm not sure if this would be considered a failure or a mistake, and I don't really care. I just want my kids to feel comfortable taking risks in my classroom. This constant pressure to be perfect when perfect doesn't necessarily mean you have any idea what's going on. And for Newton's sake, quit quoting me wikipedia.

Maybe getting this out of the way early is a good thing. I am implementing capstones this year as a part of my assessment, and if I truly want my kids to go places with those, then they are going to have to take those risks and stretch those brains. I know it's scary and I know I am fighting a slightly inclined battle, but I truly feel like it's worth it.

And, really, I'm not good with crying.

*And by yesterday, I mean sometime last summer when I started this post and had to stop to get one of my children somewhere.

**Okay, first off, didn't you pay attention when I talked about grades and reassessment stuff??


niskymom2four said...

This is a WONDERFUL lesson on so many levels!

I was just in a discussion today with the Principal of an all girls school-we were bemoaning both the anecdotal evidence AND research that shows us girls are especially reticent to take risks academically-and it often plays out exactly as you so eloquently described.

I LOVE that this was an early lesson/learning for your entire chemistry class. The quintessential "teachable moment." I will try to create this scenario for my students (with or without the tears, perhaps)-it is SUCH an important first lesson toward really doing science.


Susan Townsend

SiouxGeonz said...

how do you mass sugar?

Justin Lanier said...

Making a mistake can feel particularly rough when it seems as though all of the steps have been laid out for you, and you still screwed it up. In what ways can we create situations where there's more ambiguity as to what "right" looks like, in order to undermine the stigma of failure and to instead normalize it?
Thanks for sharing your classroom story. It's given me wonderful food for thought.

Tracie Schroeder said...

Susan - I definitely see that more with girls than boys. In the last couple years, I have had about half dozen who want me to check every, single step as they work through a problem. It got so bad that I printed off little question mark cards that they had to use to "buy" a question. The interesting thing about that though, is more often than not they had the correct line of thinking, they just craved that reassurance. I'm not sure what it is that we do that makes them so unsure of themselves.

Tracie Schroeder said...

Hey Sioux - It can be extremely messy! Most kids mass the sugar in a test tube, but some of them will use a paper towel. Find the mass of the container first and then find the mass of the container holding the sugar. If you subtract those two masses, you find the mass of the sugar.

Tracie Schroeder said...

Justin - for this lab, I don't give them step by step instructions. It's pretty straight forward, so I don't get much variation. Maybe that was what did it. If it was YOUR plan and it screwed up, it might be worse than if you were just doing what you were told? I am hoping that having kids do capstone projects will create more of a gray area when it comes to being right or wrong. To be honest, I am a little worried because I am not sure everyone will want to take that risk.

Anonymous said...

After my first year, when I think I saw every one of my Honors Physics students cry, I had a goal of none of my students crying the next year. But I quickly realized that I just don't have that much control over any teenager's emotions. Nor do I want to have that much control, to be honest. Anyway, I think pretty much always when a kid gets that upset, there is some aggravating circumstance that I don't even know about that's happening outside of my class.

In general, I've found that things like the Mistake Game (where you are required to do things incorrectly) help to convince students that I'm serious about mistakes being both normal and required. It also just takes some time for the most perfection-addicted kids. They have to go through a whole cycle of doing something poorly, practicing, and seeing themselves get better at it. Eventually, they start to realize that it is possible to learn things (that you don't just have some Chemistry or Physics gene (or not have it)).

One of my favorite one-on-one talking points—I like to highlight the ridiculousness of the thing that they're thinking by talking about how they've gotten As in school up until now, but 10th grade science is the limit. That's it. They've run out of smarts. If only they'd known ahead of time, so they could have just quit school after 9th grade and finished on top of their game. Etc, etc. :) It's honestly how some of them are feeling, but until you actually articulate it, it doesn't feel so crazy. Once you say it out loud, it's exposed for the insanity that it is.

Bryna Goeckner said...

I can definitely relate to having students with this fear of failure - and last year was one of my worst so far for students that needed to know the "right" answer as I would want it said (probably a combination of me being on maternity leave for 2nd quarter and that particular group of students). I think, in part, that the modeling approach asks them to do something so different from what they are asked in more traditional classrooms that it really takes time to adjust.

I too have students repeat this lab (or portions of it) until we get some consensus and have data that lines up with what makes sense. I'm also looking at adding a more open ended challenge to start the year and really try to establish a more open mindset from the very first day.

Tracie Schroeder said...

Kelly - you made everyone cry? A lofty goal :) I am definitely make the Mistake Game a requirement this year. We did it a few times last year, but I really like the idea that you do it EVERY time. It was funny today we were talking about getting an A and if everyone had one, what would be so special about it?

Tracie Schroeder said...

Bryna - Every year, I have a couple (usually) girls that just cannot help but ask me about every single step. Modeling definitely puts them out of their comfort zone, even just simply whiteboarding their answers. I have found that word has gotten around and they are now coming into my room expecting to do things a little differently.

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