Thursday, December 1, 2016

The "F" Word: Why we need to encourage students not to be afraid of failure

I can still remember the day my dad brought home our first computer.  It was a Vic 20 and I thought it was amazing.

Cutting Edge Technology Straight From 1980

I sat down with my dad in front of the monitor, and he taught me how to program it to write my name in rainbow colours on the screen.  I was completely in awe of the power of the machine, but at the same time, I was completely terrified by what could happen if I misused it.  I was afraid that if I typed in the wrong thing, or pushed the wrong button,  I might break it.  It was then that my dad taught me one of the most important lessons of my life.  He told me there was nothing I could do that would break the computer, and let me play around with it in order to learn.  I didn't realize it at the time, but reflecting on it now,  he showed me that one of the most effective ways of learning is through trial and error.  He let me know that it was okay to make mistakes.

I've been in the classroom for 15 years now, and I still feel that this type of learning doesn't happen enough, even in my own classroom. Students today put so much pressure on themselves to succeed, but where is that coming from?

Partially I feel it's the system; our system only allows for evaluation of product, and while process is encouraged, it is often overlooked.  The refrain of, "Is this being marked?" is one that every teacher is both familiar with and frustrated by.  There is still such a disconnect in students' minds between effective process and successful product.

Process is where failure comes into play.  That's right, I used the "F" word! It has become so taboo these days, but really, failure is a part of life.  I don't mean that we need to accept failure, but we do need to embrace it.  No one achieves perfection the first time the try something, and yet we expect it of our students so often.  Didn't write a great essay? Put more effort into the next one.  Earned a poor grade on a test? Study harder next time.  But for this one, if you didn't do it right the first time, the grade stands.

What does this accomplish?  How is this attitude beneficial to our students?

This was what I found myself pondering recently when a number of my grade 12 English students failed a simple content test on Orwell's 1984. Even my strongest students didn't perform well.  I couldn't understand what went wrong.  I went back and forth between faulting myself for not ensuring they understood the material and blaming them for not putting forth the effort.

But Whose System? Mine? Theirs?

I really wanted to find out what happened, so I decided to have the students write a metacognitive reflection on their preparation for the test and how they could improve next time.  While specifics varied, the main message was clear: most of them truly thought they knew the content, and didn't realize how much they didn't know until the test.

I had to ask myself, "What was the purpose of this test? What was I trying to measure?".  In this case, it was simply meant to demonstrate if the students had read and understood the material.  They felt they had, but the test marks said otherwise.

At first I simply tried to comfort them.  I told them, "Don't worry about it! The test is only worth 2% of your final mark.  In the long run it won't hurt you."  But they surprised me, as this didn't satisfy them.  They were worried about their mark, but more so, they wanted to prove to me, and themselves,  that they DID learn something.

So I gave them an alternative assignment; they had to create a verbal-visual study guide that would demonstrate their knowledge of the text.  It was extensive, and would require a lot more effort than the test did.  I gave them a week to do it, and figured I'd maybe get a handful submitted.

Almost 75% of them did the assignment.  And the results were incredible.  To me, they showed more knowledge and understanding of the text through this assignment than they would have through answering the test questions.  At the same time, by having to determine what to include, and creating summaries, I believe they retained more information than they would have from simply studying.

Does this mean I will be eliminating tests? No. I don't think that's the answer. What it has shown me though, is that sometimes that offering students opportunities to learn from their mistakes teaches them more than I ever could.  Guess I was able to learn from my mistake too!


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