Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Teaching to Fail

I was reading an article with the above title written by Edward Burger and published in Inside Higher Ed today. Burger's assertion that we need to teach students that it is okay to fail and that all human ideas are derived from a "natural, thoughtful, and (ideally) unending journey" that involves a process of iterative deep thinking. That sometimes we moved backward or hit a dead end before we can move forward. As educators, we need to explicitly (key word here) highlight those dead ends and mistakes. In other words, we need to teach students the power of failure and how to fail effectively.

Burger calls this the "quality of failure" and even includes a place in his grade book that represents how each student grew and learned from taking risks, making mistakes, reflecting, and growing from those failures. This view of assessment is completely counter to the long-held view of assessment as a summative, judgmental evaluation of how much as student knows and doesn't know.

Burger states, "If we foster an environment in our classrooms in which failing is a natural and necessary component in making progress, then we allow our students to release their own genius and share their authentic ideas — even if (or especially when) those ideas aren’t quite polished or perfectly formed." In other words, we foster an environment in which assessment is not only OF learning but also FOR and AS learning. We recognize that the primary focus of assessment is on improving learning and teaching process. Formative assessment, often viewed as Assessment FOR Learning or Assessment AS Learning, provides students with feedback so they can judge their progress and the efficacy of their study methods. Instructors also receive feedback on student performance in order to modify and improve their teaching and assessment strategies.

An underlying principle guiding the use of assessment FOR learning is the idea that we, as instructors, are obligated to ensure that our students not only know the facts and concepts but that they know them in meaningful ways in order to be able to use that knowledge in authentic situations and to solve real-world problems. They are not only equipped with the facts, but they are also able to gather and evaluate additional information if needed. In other words, memorization is not enough; knowledge must end up in practice and doing.

Assessment AS Learning involves students in the process of looking at their learning and reflecting on their own abilities and progress. With guidance from the instructor and through focused activities, students are encouraged to think about and assess their learning. The self-assessment process is ongoing and tied to the learning outcomes. It aids students in becoming aware of how they learn, solve problems, and make decisions. Assessment AS Learning involves self-monitoring and self-evaluation which helps focus students’ efforts and encourage responsibility for their learning. Its purpose is to enhance learning through the process of writing and thinking about the learning experience.

At the end of the semester, Burger asks his students to write a one-page reflective essay describing their productive failure over the period of the course and how they grew as a result of those experiences. I have incorporated similar narrative responses in several of my courses as a means of gathering data from the students as well as a way to get students to look back and reflect on what they had learned in the course. Although I have never explicitly tried to teach my students about the "benefits" of failure, I have tried to instill in my students that when they try something new, they may meet with obstacles and frustrations (especially when trying out new teaching methods and incorporating new technologies in their teaching practice)--and that this is okay and expected to some degree. It's how we respond to these obstacles that makes the difference.   If you get on a bicycle and don't fall off you already knew how to ride and learned nothing -- it is only by falling that you learn. I also reminded my education students that according to Dewey, knowledge is formed by the process of combining experience and previous learning with ideas presented which causes a state of disequilibrium for the learner. In order to learn, we essentially must be "off-balance."

In my Educational Technology course, I incorporated a reflective blog assignment in which I asked students to reflect on what they were learning--how it related to their career goals, how they could use the new knowledge in their personal lives, how did they solved a problem or made a decision. Their classmates were to provide comments. My intent was to make their learning more authentic, to provide context.

I always had trouble trying to figure out how to grade these reflective assignments. How can you put a grade on someone's thinking? I wound up judging the level of reflection and growth over time using a holistic rubric. Burger asked his students to conclude their essays by providing their own grade on how they had grown through their failures (from 0 – meaning "I never failed" or "I learned nothing from failing" to 10 – meaning "I created and understood in profound, new ways from my failed attempts"). After reading their narratives and reflecting on their class participation, he generally awarded the grade they had suggested.

The last two paragraphs of Burger's article struck home and are worth repeating:

To my skeptical colleagues who wonder if this grading scheme can be exploited as a loophole to reward unprepared students, I remind them that we should not create policies in the academy that police students, instead we should create policies that add pedagogical value and create educational opportunity...

Beyond the subject matter contained in the 32 to 48 courses that typical undergraduates fleetingly encounter, our students’ education centers about the most important creative feat of their lives — the creation of themselves: Creating a mind enlivened by curiosity and the intellectual audacity to take risks and create new ideas, a mind that sees a world of unlimited possibilities. So we as educators and scholars should constantly be asking ourselves: Have I taught my students how to successfully fail? And if not, then: What am I waiting for?

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