Thoughts on Failure

“Failure is instructive. The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes.” John Dewey

 

This blog post is based on my November 10th 2016 Ignite talk for Fair Chance Learning’s event in Niagara Falls with Brian Aspinall, during the Bring It Together conference. See my slide deck here.

 

Being a dad has affected my pedagogy. I’ve come to realize that I need to believe what I say, not just for other people’s kids, but also for my own! My 5 son and I made an air tank for his halloween firefighter costume. While doing this with him, I did a little thought experiment: Considering the incredible changes of the last 20 years, what does his life look like in the next 20 yrs if he’s never done coding? He might still be ok, but he’d have closed a door.

Along with current Twitter discussion about whether to make coding mandatory curriculum, this got me thinking: We teach thinking – not content. What does this mean for making, tinkering and coding?

Coding is awesome, but it’s not the thing. All content, including coding, is only a vehicle to teach thinking.

 

DEFINING SUCCESS

What defines whether a teacher has been successful? A lot of people try to tie this to test scores but I don’t think it is that simple. A less quantifiable, more nuanced answer: if – at the end of High School – a student can think well enough to TEACH THEMSELVES anything they need to learn (given enough time), then we have done our job! This is a really tough challenge, especially for elementary level teachers because we might never see this success, being so far removed from the end of each students 20 year long learning journey. (And of course, learning should be a life-long journey)

“If – at the end of High School – a student can think well enough to teach themselves anything they need to learn (given enough time), then we have done our job”

As a result teaching often feels like an experiment. Any scientist can explain how experiments have different kinds of variables, such as independent and controlled variables. When it comes to things like educators pushing coding, or 1:1 programs pushing devices being put constantly in the hands of kids, I feel like we are in a kind of grand social experiment, one that has no control variable!

We need a healthy tension between the prophets and the accountants, between the risk takers and the risk managers. This balance calls for hard choices as we consider the role of making and coding in the classroom. Choices need to be centred around the key question: “Does this further the goal of teaching children to think?”

Here’s another thought experiment. How many years until mandatory K-12 history needs to be edited to cut things out in order to make room for new history? XKCD says, “on what date will Star Wars be quoted for the last time?” Or as Galadriel says in Lord of the Rings: “some things that should not have been forgotten, were lost.”

Here are some things I think we should NOT forget, based on some reading i’ve done.

 

THINGS TO REMEMBER

Problem discovery is more important than problem solving. If you don’t know you have a flat tire, that’s bad! But once you know – the solution is easy! In other cases, timing is everything in problem discovery. You want to find out that an astronaut needs to scratch her nose before she is stuck in a space suit. Problems, once discovered, still need to be properly defined. Is your problem that you need a car? Or can you be flexible enough to open yourself up to a world of new possibilities by defining the problem as needing a way to get from A-B?

Once we’ve taught kids to properly define problems, we can introduce Wicked problems. Starting with empathy, we can use the design cycle to address real world issues with our students – and we begin to realize there are diverse problems and solutions! It’s more than just simplistically pointing to coding, electronics, and 3dprinting as the latest buzz words.

Speaking of Wicked coding problems – they aren’t solved from scratch, but with coders who borrow and tinker with others’ code. Many teachers see this as a major obstacle, since they cannot wrap their head around the idea that copying someone else’s code as your starting point is not plagiarism.

“Copying someone else’s code as your starting point is not plagiarism”

Edith Ackerman called this method of learning through programming “coding in the weak sense”. Tinkering with someone else’s work leads to mistakes and failure, which leads to learning!

Failure is how we learn.

Let me give you a concrete, tactile example, since it seems to me that our brains are hardwired to learn from failure. You learned to walk, do you think you never fell down? You can’t always hold hands. Eventually you have to let go and try to walk on your own. Did your parent/guardian say “we don’t want you to fall down anymore, guess you’re not cut out for walking”? No – we were encouraged to push through the failure and learn from those early mistakes.

What has changed as we get older? Why do we feel the need to rescue students from failure? We need to avoid rescuing kids and allow them to fail at a young age in a safe space so that they can manage it better or avoid it completely when they’re older and it matters more!

 

RADICAL REVISION

This is a bit of a radical concept, but I think school needs radical revision, or we may be left behind – make no mistake. If we don’t revision ourselves, corporate culture will do it for us – just like robots have replaced jobs in factories and fields.

Here’s an example of one thing that needs revisioning: school timing and organization. What is the implicit message of school bells, particularly between classes? John Gatto says this teaches kids that NOTHING is worth finishing! Sir Ken Robinson says that bells prepare kids for industrial era jobs that don’t really exist anymore. Have you noticed that on The Magic School Bus classes never have period changes?

We need to revise school culture to consider intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation. Montessori classrooms don’t use the word play. Meaningful purposeful work is done for it’s own intrinsic value. Who’s running the token economy in your house to get you to wash your dishes? They need to get done, whether you get gold stars or not!

“Who’s running the token economy in your house to get you to wash your dishes?”

Edith Ackerman suggests this change: schools need to be edgeless, but not formless. Students (especially at younger ages) need structure and order, but we also need to emphasize the connections between subjects to maximize student thought development.

As teachers we need to be flexible, and break out of our silos. We should create schools that allow natural classroom flow based on student voice/interest. Sal Khan of khanacademy.com says we can standardize curriculum but we can’t standardize learning. Sir Ken Robinson says not to be discouraged by a lack of change in the overall system, but make change where you are at – if you are an administrator, make change there; if you are a classroom teacher, make change there.

So you have a great idea for something? Want to start a makerspace? Coding club? Sylvia Martinez says don’t make excuses about waiting for next year. JUST DO IT!

 

 

 

Does that blank space look or feel awkward? Sometimes we need to pause. To reflect. We need to be OK being uncomfortable. We must model it for kids, and let them try it. NO RESCUING!

Authentic learning takes time, yet we feel we don’t have time. Remember – we don’t have to cover everything. We’ve been slaves to “The Tyranny of Keep Moving” (and be sure to cover all those tiny curriculum expectations). Let’s free ourselves! We need students to master BIG ideas. We need to take time to stop, step back and observe the learning moments pointing to long term order (success) within the apparent short term chaos.

“We’ve been slaves to “The Tyranny of Keep Moving”. Let’s free ourselves!”

We need to be realistic about our own lives and the lives we are preparing our students for. It’s not IF you fall down, but WHEN. As any good dad, I prepared my own kids before they even tried roller skating for the first time. I made sure they were prepared physically of course, got all their knee pads on, elbow guards, helmets, and so on. Then I prepared them mentally too:

“Sweetheart, when you fall down what do you need to do?”

“Get back up daddy”.

Fail early. Fail often. As Ms. Frizzle on The Magic Schoolbus says: Take chances, make mistakes. Get messy.

Teach kids to think!

NOTE:

I’ve done some reading over the last two years that has got me thinking about Failure and the role it plays in learning. Here are the titles of the books that have influenced the thoughts I’ve woven together above in this post:

  • John Taylor Gatto – Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling
  • Sal Khan – One World Schoolhouse
  • Jessica Lahey – The Gift of Failure
  • Ken Robinson – Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education

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