Tag Archives: mistakes

The F-Word

I’m talking about failure. Failure has become quite the educational buzzword these days. Articles, research journals, and blogposts all tout the need for failure as part of the learning process. I’d argue that most people mean “mistake” instead of “failure,” but that is an argument for another day. I’d just like to say that failure–necessary or not–is no fun.

One of my PD goals this year is to implement an improved standards-based assessment system into my Grade 12 English class. While I still believe in the idea, I have failed in a few ways during the process so far.

Communication has been a failure. It took me an embarrassingly long time to communicate the idea to students. My reporting of their progress was weak. I developed a pretty helpful grade book to keep track of student learning, but I was unable to adequately share that grade book with students and parents.

The structure let down a significant chunk of students in the class. About a third of the students in the class embraced the idea of building their own reading/writing portfolio and followed through with managing and completing the task. However, while the middle third eventually caught on, the bottom third floundered and produced very little. Upon reflection I think the top third already had the required academic and life skills necessary to manage and complete a long-term project, and I failed to scaffold instruction for the rest of the class, many of whom need smaller stages that would allow them to recognize the necessary skills and sometimes fail to execute them without jeopardizing the entire big picture.

I failed in execution. The heart and soul of this idea is that the teacher can spend 30 to 45 minutes per class in one-on-one conversation/instruction with students, giving immediate feedback and allowing students to articulate their learning. I accomplished this less than half as much as I would have liked as I tried to wrestle with the two failures mentioned above. It took me so long to communicate the big picture at the beginning of the course, that I didn’t firmly set up the necessary culture of conversation and conferencing.

I share all this because too often teachers feel isolated in their individual classrooms and that they are the only one struggling to improve. Certainly this post focuses on the negative, and in the middle of the semester I felt the weight of my shortcomings, but with the support of some amazing colleagues, I am past the negative. I can recognize some of the successes, and I have started to develop solutions that will prevent the same type of failure from happening again (or least they will happen to a lesser degree). I strongly believe this is professional learning (PD if you will). I’ll blog about my developing solutions as they…well, develop.

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Mistakes in Education: a reblog

*note: This post was originally posted on a blog I use with my students, but I thought some of my colleagues and readers here might find it interesting. I’m not finished with this topic. 

This week I learned more about how important mistakes are when learning. In class I mentioned how our school system has inadvertently taught us that being wrong is a very bad thing. This has stunted our creativity, our critical thinking, and our playfulness. We’re so concerned with avoiding being wrong that we’d rather not raise our hand or participate in something challenging. Failure is the ultimate shame.  The embedded video is a TED talk by Kathryn Schulz who studies being wrong and its role in our lives. If you’re interested and have 18 minutes to spare, you may want to check it out.

I’m trying to change our attitude toward mistakes and failure starting with this class, and this week only increased my belief that it is a much needed attitude adjustment. Not only did this video inspire me, but so did an encounter with one of my daughters. She’s six, and on Friday after school she started crying. I took her into my arms, calmed her, and tried to decipher the sniffly, sobby story of what was wrong. Turns out she made a mistake at school.

The class was working on optical illusions. Students were supposed to draw boxy, plaid-like patterns on a circular piece of paper. The paper circles were pierced in the centre by a pencil, resembling a flat umbrella. When the pencil is rolled between the palms, the circle spins, and the boxy pattern whirls into a colourful circle. Well, my daughter, not seeing the relevance or the big picture, quickly scribbled a blotchy pattern on her circle. When the teacher gently tried to show her the need for a plaid pattern, the shame of being wrong descended on my little girl. The only thing that reduced her shame to a manageable level was another little girl in her class who immediately volunteered that she had made the same mistake.

Back at home, I tried to convinced my daughter that school was one of the best places to make mistakes. She recently learned to ice skate at school, and she’s getting pretty good. I asked her if she ever fell.

“Of course!” she said with her silly-daddy look on her face.

“Oh no! I said, “That’s a mistake.”

She quickly replied, “No it isn’t. That’s how you learn to skate.”

I let her wisdom sink in and then we talked some more about learning, but I have haven’t been able to shake her innate understanding that learning involves mistakes while at the same time she’s ashamed to make any at school. This is a big problem within our education system. I learned a bit more this week about how deep it runs within me and the system, and I want to be part of the solution. Any ideas? Let’s talk and learn playfully without fear of being wrong.

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