Turning Student Failure into Information

I've been thinking a lot about the process of failure as a method of learning. A few articles posted in the last few days all question failure as a learning and motivating tool. Valerie Strauss writes about it here. Alfie Kohn writes about it here. Joanne Jacobs reblogs about it here.

Kohn quotes Jerome Bruner's thought: "We want students to “experience success and failure not as reward and punishment but as information,”  Ideally, we want students to walk away with this experience- "My experiment, or my essay, didn’t turn out the way I had hoped, and the reason that happened offers valuable clues for how I might take a different approach tomorrow."

Often they don't. Often they shut down. Often they give up. The authors above finish by asking: "How can schools teach students to learn from failure?" Good question.

I know some teachers that have their gradebooks "rigged" to ensure grade inflation. In other words, no matter how poorly a student does, this rigging provides the "illusion" of learning, which keeps the students and parents spirits high. This is only to be second guessed when standardized test scores reveal that Johnny, who is getting an "A or B" is in Language Arts class, is in the 50th percentile on standardized tests.

Marking students work and handing it back to them does not ensure learning. In fact, I will agree, a low mark will lower self esteem, so we cannot resign to telling students, "learn from your mistakes." What assurances do we have that they will?

To turn failure into constructive reflection, we must use assessment as a learning tool, not a destination. Marking how well students did on formative or summative assessment cannot be the end, but the signposts to helping re mediate misconceptions that individual students have. Here are some tips:

Use formative assessments often. These are entry level investigations that we might think of as homework or quizzes. However, we must provide time to meet with struggling students which every mixed ability heterogenous classroom has. Using 10-15 minutes of time to debrief and work with students can help, by walking them through problems they they may have missed. Eventually they say "Ah Ha! Now I get it!" and this time may provide insights as to why they were mistaken. Was it a simple mistake or was this a major conceptual misunderstanding? I have uncovered a treasure trove of insights about individual students in my classes as a result of small group conferences.   

Offer practice tests. We're have a discussion as a team about whether or not a retest should be offered. We as a math department have offered a "practice test" before a final test or alternative assessment to help students identify gaps in their learning as outlined by our Google doc curriculum maps. The data has shown to support this practice overwhelmingly. See it here.

Get parents involved. Emailing or contacting parents can be a big wake up call. We all want our children to be successful, and sometimes, their children are not very forthcoming about sharing their failures. Sometimes, my students get on "edge" when they hear that I'm contacting their parents but I always make a point to say "This is meant to help you improve as a learner, not to get you in trouble." Consider a classroom blog to keep parents informed about the happenings in your classroom and also consider putting together a parent mailing list to notify them of major events in your classroom.

Offer differentiated challenges for learning. There are many different ways that students can show their understanding, so it's good to vary it up with learning benchmarks in mind. One thing that we have done is to offer "challenge by choice" by David Suarez which offers the curriculum in different levels of challenge. This is not to be confused with "streamming" where students are put into groups by the teacher. Challenge by choice has been a big boon to my gifted learners and whereas Kohn argues that kids will always try for the "easiest track", I have found a high % of my class are advanced and highly advanced level learners have been excited by the challenge. Furthermore, students that actively engaged in higher level applications found greater gains in standardized tests.

There is a lot of grey area around the multitude of different assessment practices in education today. Some educators do a better job than others of using it truly effectively as a teaching and learning tool. Designing quality assessments around learning standards is the first step, reteaching struggling learners until they feel empowered and able is the second.

We cannot allow the fear of failure to not be honest and forthcoming about student abilities. I have had too many students transfer into my math class from outside schools who told them that they were an "A" student only to do dismal in my classroom. If we are to truly prepare students for the rigors of high school and college, we must turn the malleable middle school years into a time to develop good student skills, reflective practice and study habits. That, is how to turn student failure into information.

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