Faking Failure

Take risks! Embrace failure! Dare to flop!

I’m not sure where the ethers of risk appetite came from, but I know that they come from a good place. But as long as learning tasks are one-off activities that result in a grade, our calls to take risk are disingenuous. The impact of grades and internal and external pressures lead to a process of hedging (pretending to take risks while still keeping an eye on what students think the teacher really wants) that almost guarantees sub-optimal learning outcomes for our kids.

Over the last several (10+) years, a persistent wind calls for emphasizing process over product. Not a bad idea. But we’re still putting the main focus on the binary question of “What am I going to get out of this? (a grade vs. a judgment of how I do the work).

Rather than focusing on the product vs process (both of which are products…one is graded and one is couched in terms of behaviors or tendencies), what if we begin the whole process with the question, “Why do we do this work in the first place?” Rather than ask what I’m going to get out of it, ask what is the cause of my doing this at all?

Grounding student work in the genesis may prompt students (through careful teacher scaffolding) to consider questions like:

  • Who do I want to be as I enter into this work?
  • How do I hope to respond to situations of difficulty or conflict?
  • What do I hope to learn throughout this process?
  • How do I hope to respond if in the end I don’t succeed?

Those last two questions are very much product oriented, but framed in terms of goals rather than task completion. The difference between framing a learning task as described above versus simply “putting the emphasis on the process” may be subtle, but meaningful. Assessing process imposes externalized teacher expectations (usually in rubric form) applied to future student work. Expectations are compared to execution and the rubric is graded accordingly. This is a FINE way to teach kids about desired learning behaviors.

What if no rubric were applied to the learning process and students rather reflected on the questions above (or yet better questions thought up by someone more insightful than I)? Does the lack of teacher imprimatur still make for evidence of worthwhile learning?

If grades are a necessity at your school, you very well may frame learning around the genesis of the work as described above, but still employ some not-that-unreasonable techniques to ensure that process is examined instead of or alongside the ultimate product. Some ideas:

  • What if every (and I do mean EVERY) assignment that results in a recorded grade allows for multiple permutations before its final version is submitted?
  • What if all one-off learning tasks, graded or ungraded, did not reach to the report card, but rather were used as feedback for future work?

Schools exist that put such prototyping skills into daily practice, but they do stand apart as if they were a different species than the majority of schools out there.

The result for a traditional school would be fewer grades in the gradebook, for sure. But those grades would be grounded in a large quantity of examined (better yet, self-examined!), process-oriented work.

Born to Create: Letting the brain do what the brain is meant to do

In an article in Psychology Today (October 2016 issue), Todd Kashdan brings us this pearl of wisdom:

“Our brains are designed to create, not to hold onto content. It is essential to extract information and file it away into easily retrievable documents.

He recommends keeping electronic diaries and sprinkling notebooks around your spaces (school, home). I love this idea and it puts retained knowledge where it belongs: within reach but not necessarily at the ready. This frees us up to let the brain do what our brain really wants to do.

Let the brain focus on creating new knowledge, not storing old knowledge.

I say this as a person that prides himself on knowing a lot of stuff. But I also recognize that my fondness for knowing things is a form of vanity. I take pride when someone looks at me, a Spanish teacher and running coach, and says, “Why on earth do you know that?”

And to be fair, I believe knowing things makes you an all-around interesting person. But we should be clear with our students and with ourselves that the purpose of education is not to retain knowledge in perpetuity or even for the long term.

The purpose of retaining information is to hold on to it long enough to make connections with other information in the hopes of creating new information from it and in deriving value from both of those learning processes. How does this information apply in this novel circumstance over here? Or perhaps it’s worthwhile to simply ask What does collection of information mean for me?

Either accidentally or deliberately, we communicate to children that the purpose of memorization is permanent storage and immediate retrieval. I do hope that we rethink this. It’s still A-OK to quiz students to confirm short-term retention, but we’d be doing them a great service in saying, “All right, folks. As soon as you can find some worthwhile reason for learning this information, I encourage you to let it go and move on to novel information with greater utility.”

“And I hope you look forward to that wonderful feeling you get when, in the middle of a conversation in some far-off future, your eyebrows pop off your forehead and you shout, ‘Oh yeah! I remember learning that somewhere!'”