Failure is not optional

It’s time for the mindset talk in my physics classes. I’ve been trying to prime them for a while now. Honors Physics read part of Carol Dweck’s book as part of their summer homework and two chapters of The Talent Code during the year. The “regular” physics class has been talking about myelin and how feeling confused means you’re about to learn something. On the course evaluation in January, 36% of them agreed with “You can learn new things, but you can’t really change how intelligent you are.” while 38% agreed with “You can always substantially change how intelligent you are.” (it wasn’t either/or).

I’ve decided that the regular class is going to read a short part of Bounce aloud and discuss it on Monday. Honors Physics is going to read an abridged version of How Not to Talk to Your Kids (the parts about very young children are cut out) for homework and talk about it in class. We read it in Honors last year at this time, and it had a profound effect on many of my students. They start to recognize themselves as they read the article, and some start to recognize what has happened to them this year in physics. At this point in the year, almost all of them will have “hit the wall” in this class. They will have encountered something difficult enough that they couldn’t immediately understand how to do it. For the students who have always found easy success in math and science, they initially believe this means they’ve reached the end of their “potential” and are no longer as smart as they’d always known they were. Sure, they’ve earned A’s on every math test they’ve ever taken, even as they’ve watched their friends struggle, but 10th grade science is as far as they are going to get on their academic journey. This is the end of the road.

By March, though, many of those same students have been able to work through that first difficult problem. They might now believe that they are “getting away with” their performance in this class. In an unforeseen amount of luck, they have managed to hoodwink their teacher into believing that they are still smart. Secretly (or honestly, in some cases, not so secretly), they are ashamed about being a failure. I think they are about ready to meet the fixed and growth mindsets and to hear some good news: however smart they were before, they have actually gotten smarter this year. And they will keep doing so for the rest of their lives, should they continue choosing challenging experiences.

What is the point of a test?

Earlier this year, I started thinking about this question: What is the immediate goal of a student while taking a test? Answer all of the questions correctly, maybe. Show what they know (or as we like to say around here: celebrate/demonstrate mastery)?

Watching my students interact with a test, though, I started to realize that for many of them the goal seemed to be this: Hide what you don’t know. I recognized it by looking at the barrage of “clarification” questions that border on desperate pleas for answers, by the early disbelief that Standards-Based Grading truly meant that they would get another chance (and another and another), by questions like, “I don’t know how to do this one, can I just skip it?”

And as I started to consider this idea, it became clear just what an insidious demon it was. Where does it originate? Why do they think they should be hiding what they don’t know? They must be getting the message that either their teachers don’t want that information, or that it will only ever be used against them (perhaps confirmation that a grade is actually a judgement of their character and value). What is the point of letting the teacher know that you are confused about something if they have all but guaranteed that they won’t help you become less confused once you do?

So. New goal: Show me what you don’t know so we can get started fixing it. Show me what you don’t know, because this isn’t your one and only chance to succeed. Show me what you don’t know, because we still have time. I promise I won’t give up on you.

After all, if you want to be successful, failure is not optional. If you want to get better at something, then you need to practice what you can’t do. If you are practicing what you can’t do, you are going to make mistakes. So in physics class, you’re not just allowed to make mistakes. They’re required.

27 thoughts on “Failure is not optional

  1. “Hide what you don’t know”… not gonna lie, that hit me hard.

    A colleague of mine often says this, “Students turning away from confusion is as ridiculous as a fireman turning away from a burning building.”

    1. It seems like we (teachers) are often upset that students don’t want to learn from their mistakes on their tests, make corrections, etc. But what incentive do they have to do so in most classes? A student told me that her math teacher said, “You’re not supposed to get second chances in math.” Whether those were the words the teacher used or not, that is certainly the message that student (and many others) are getting.

      1. Yeah, I agree they don’t have an incentive in most classes. That’s why I am so intrigued by skills-based grading. I am definitely going to make some of my assessment in the Fall based on that, where people can reassess on basic skills that I have made clear to them they need to know. Wish me luck!

    1. They have a frequent foil in their cousin, Throckmorton, who is basically a dolt at physics. Sometimes he makes statements (over Thanksgiving dinner, etc) and the kids are supposed to explain to poor, misguided Throcky, why he is wrong. It would probably be helpful to practice that type of thinking and explaining during whiteboarding sessions though. I’ll try and ask some of those questions and see what happens.

      1. I have done a lot of questions where students have to (1) provide an argument for the answer they believe, (2) provide a counter argument for a different answer, and (3) then discuss the flaw in the counter argument.

        The third one is really hard, and takes practice. At first, they just repeat part 1. But with scaffolding like, “That argument would be right if XYZ, but we now XYZ can’t be so because of ABC”.

        What I like about it is this. Even if students give a wrong answer (and maybe express some common misconceptions) in part 1, they have had to spend time trying to defend what they think is a wrong answer (which happens to be the right answers).

        Even for students who know the right answer, they have to defend off wrong answers.

  2. Love this. “show me what you don’t know.” I’m going to find a way to work this in as a theme in my course. I think you are so right that all those clarification questions really are just grasping at straws hoping a detail or two might cascade into putting down enough on the paper to qualify for some partial credit, when really, I want kids to say, “I know this, I know this, but I don’t know how to do X.”

    1. I try to answer with something like: Show me what you can, and let’s use this to figure out exactly where the problem is.

      Also, I like, “if you don’t know where to start, treat it like a goal-less problem until you start to get somewhere.”

  3. Really like that shift Kelly. I’ve been using variations on “The test will help you decide what to do next….” but I like the conciseness of this. Your brief blogging career has given me tons of food for thought.

  4. Really helped me clarify my thinking. I get my students to correct their tests and explain their new learning when requesting a reassessment. They resist this mightily. Often they write things like “I learned how to do X.” Or “it was just a careless mistake.” Sometimes I press them to be specific about what they learned or which careless mistake they need to guard against in the future. It’s clear that many find this humiliating, some kind of ingenious psychological punishment for having made a mistake. Admitting that they learned something means admitting they didn’t know it all along, and that embarrasses them. Does that mean they’re ashamed of learning? Obviously I’m not scaffolding this well, and I’m looking forward to trying some of your techniques. Assigning readings from Dweck sounds really interesting.

    1. How often do you think they’ve practiced the skill of consciously figuring out what caused them to make a mistake? How often do we just say, “That’s okay, you’ll get it next time.” instead of helping them pick out what went wrong? My guess is that they might not even know how to do it.

      Dweck is awesome. There are some great youtube videos of her, too, to mix it up with the readings. As a recovering fixed-mindset kid, reading her book was pretty eye-opening.

  5. Kelly,
    How do you distribute Mindset and The Talent Code to each student…do you have copies of the books or just links to excerpts?

    1. This year I photocopied the two chapters of The Talent Code and the section of Mindset. Next year, I think we’re going to have them all get a copy of The Talent Code to read as summer homework. It might be the best preparation for Honors Physics that they could have.

  6. I am new to the idea of SBG (but NOT new to teaching physics) and I have three questions if have a minute to answer:

    1) How do you decide a student has “mastered” an objective? A full and complete solution to one comprehensive problem? To several problems? To problems and questions?

    2) When students retake an assessment to demonstrate mastery, do you give them the same basic problem/question with different numbers or are the questions different but on the same topic?

    3) Where do you get all the problems/questions needed to have students reassess multiple times?

    Sorry if I sound ignorant, but I want to make sure I understand how SBG actually works logistically. It seems like it would be overwhelming to create scores of original problems/questions for student to attempt and re-attempt to gain mastery. Thanks.

    1. No problem. Feel free to ask as many questions as you’d like.

      1) On an assessment, there are usually multiple questions/problems that address the same skills. They had to use the skill correctly every time in order to get a “yes” to that objective for the assessment. Student-initiated reassessments were usually one problem last year, but I plan to make them a bit longer for this coming year.

      2) Much to my students’ dismay, NO! That would only assess whether they could memorize the solution to a problem, not how to use a skill. As I often reminded them, my goal was to give them another problem that looked the same to me but that looked different to them. Most of the time they agreed with this idea if they slowed down and thought about it. I didn’t want to trick them into thinking they understood how to draw a free body diagram when really they only understood what to draw for that one problem, right? Then next time, they’d be back to a “no” on the skill and be in the same spot!

      3) Ah, this part is easier than it seems. I have a bunch of different physics books, and I just pull problems out of them. I very often use goal-less problems for reassessments because they let the kids show whichever skills they’d like to use. This summer, though, a few of us are trying to put together a tagged library of questions (tagged with which objectives they assess) to make that process even easier. I’m not sure that it will completely come together this summer, but it’s something that we can keep working toward as we find new problems throughout the next year or two.

      It was and wasn’t a lot of work the first time through. When you let the kids schedule those outside assessments makes a big difference. I went with the chaos model this past year, but I’m going to restrict it to one specific day per week next year. That will give me a lot more time to stay sane and also prepare for class. 🙂

      1. Thanks, Kelly. As I work through all of this over the summer I most likely WILL have a few more questions. It seems a little overwhelming right now.

        1. No problem. I’m always happy to do more brainstorming about this stuff. Changing the grading system really made my students a lot happier this year, and I’m convinced that they learned more physics, too (although of course it’s hard to back that up with data, especially since of course we changed more than one thing about the class from the year before, including the kids). And if you are honest with the kids about how you’re trying something new and are probably going to make a few mistakes, they seem to be really understanding and forgiving. And usually appreciate that you’re trying new things.

          Anyway, if you don’t already know this: there are lots of different ways to implement the essential ideas of SBG. You don’t have to use the A/B skills system that we used, and you don’t even have to do out-of-class assessments at all. Next year I’m planning to give a short quiz every week where the content could be anything we’ve covered so far. I think that will help me cut down on the frequency of out-of-class assessments at the end of the term because (a) they will realize that they don’t truly understand a skill earlier and (b) they will have had a lot more in-class chances at each objective. More data will also make me feel better about my measurements, of course.

  7. the reason students don’t want to expose ignorance (except in dire cases) is that they get a clear message from every other teacher and every admin they’ve ever encountered: the highest priority in a class is to plow through the year’s material. the most popular way of doing this is to directly instruct. mind you, this is not the best way for students to learn just the best way to “cover” an inappropriately vast amount of material. students sense this urgency and pipe down, allowing the teacher to “cover” the material. only when they fear their grade will drop below a level of performance they’ve grown accustomed to they must weigh this self-preservation instinct against their “understanding” that the lecture must continue. this is why perennially failing students are often quite quiet (when everyone around them is passing) and why *nobody* interrupts college lectures with questions.

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