Building a Learning Skatepark, Part 2: Zen and the Art of Failure

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In a Chronicle of Higher Education post I read last week, “The Benefits of Making It Harder to Learn,” James M. Lang summarizes a recent study that found that creating cognitive disfluency helps students learn more deeply. In other words, the easier we make things for our students, the less they will learn. This is not really news to me. I’ve been trying for several years now to create cognitive dissonance in my students by asking them to do things they’ve never done before–to read, think, and write critically and analytically; to use software and tools that are unfamiliar and have, in some cases, steep learning curves; to question, debate, and disagree with me and each other; to not be satisfied with good enough or mediocre thinking or writing. These are hard things to ask students to do, especially freshman, because making learning hard is not the norm in our current educational system. In fact, I would argue that we’ve made things too easy on students. I used to be one of the worst offenders. I coddled and spoon fed my freshman because I bought into the idea that they weren’t smart enough or mature enough or didn’t want to do the kind of work that I really thought college students should do. While I inwardly cringed whenever a colleague would remark upon the need to “dumb down” the curriculum, I nonetheless contributed to the process out of fear.

But fear of what?

Failure. I didn’t want my students to fail. If my students failed, I thought, then somehow I also failed as a teacher. And, like my students, I was afraid of failure.

I, too, am a product of the factory system of education. Failure was never an option for me as a student. Failure was scary and to be avoided at all costs. Failure was bad.

Schooling has made us all fear failure, the teachers just as much as the students. But, as Dr. Tae points out in “Can Skateboarding Save Our Schools?”, in skateboarding, failure is normal. Not only is it normal, but it’s expected. When failure is expected, then it’s no longer stigmatized. Everyone who skateboards fails, so they know what failure feels and looks like and they know that failure is a necessary part of the process of learning. This is just the opposite of what students experience during traditional schooling, when it should be the norm. What happens when failure is not the norm–when it is stigmatized–is that students become so uncomfortable with failure that they’ll do anything to not fail, including avoidance and dishonesty, which, ironically, are behaviors that will lead to certain failure in college. I experience the most push-back–in the form of everything from anger to tears to plagiarism to tuning out–when I ask students to step out of their comfort zones and into cognitive disfluency. They barrage me with verbal maneuvering: “This is too hard.” “I don’t know how to do this.” “I can’t do this, can’t you let me do something else?” “I don’t understand this.” They put an inordinate amount of effort into avoiding the possibility of failure.

So, how do we make failure the norm and remove the stigmatism?

First, I think that we have to model what we expect from our students. We have to overcome our own fears about failure. As I’ve stepped out of my own teaching comfort zone, I’ve become much more comfortable with failure. In fact, I’ve learned to not only admit my teaching failures, but to share them via my blog. I also purposely place myself in the same situations that I place my students in. Last term, for example, I began using Google spreadsheets to gather data from students in some of my classes. I’m comfortable with Excel, but Excel does not do what Google Docs can do in terms of open, collaborative access and real-time updating. I had already created a draft of the course schedule in Excel (within a matter of minutes), but decided to finish it in Google Docs. What followed was a laborious process as I learned how to format codes for hyperlinks. Each time I failed to code the link correctly, I would have to meticulously examine my coding to locate my mistakes and then correct them. My cognitive disfluency was at a maximum, but if I had stuck with Excel, then I never would have learned how to use Google spreadsheets.

Secondly, I think that we have to be open with students about failure–our own and theirs. We need to talk about failure with our students and let them know that it’s okay to fail–that failure is, in fact, expected. When it became painfully obvious that my hybrid FYC course was a failure, I openly discussed it with my students and asked them to stop and assess the course so that we could figure out what had went wrong and how we could fix it. Failure is not the end of the world, as some students believe. In fact, sometimes it’s just the beginning.

Thirdly, I think that we need to make students responsible for thinking about and assessing their own learning. We need to teach them how to be more “meta.” I try to do this via regular student self-assessments within the context of deliberate practice and by using portfolios for summative assessments. Today, a student pointed out that there was a disconnect between my assessment of their writing and their own. Whereas they had thought their early writings were much better than I had, they saw their recent writings as less effective than I did. The explanation was simple: the student had learned how to recognize their own failings as a writer and was now much harder on themselves. My early feedback seemed harsh because at the time they saw their writing through rose-colored glasses; they hadn’t yet learned how to practice deliberately . But now, they’ve achieved “meta:” instead of wanting to not fail at writing, they want to be better at writing (and there is a distinct difference).

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The problem with creating cognitive disfluency, as I’ve pointed out, is that there’s a zen-like balance that we, as teachers, have to achieve between challenging our students and motivating them. Lang identifies the same dilemma:

But, of course, if we push them too hard toward disfluency, we may end up discouraging them and shutting off their learning altogether. . .

The challenge that we face, then, is to create what psychologists call “desirable difficulties”: enough cognitive disfluency to promote deeper learning, and not so much that we reduce the motivation of our students.

This is the part of pedagogy that poses the most difficulty for me and that I am struggling with at the moment. I don’t automatically know the correct formula. Which means that I’m going to have to play with it, which means that, more than likely, I’m going to fail at it before I get it right (if I ever get it right). But I’m okay with that.

In the meantime, the question that keeps harshing my mellow is how do I address the even bigger challenge of teaching my students to be okay with the discomfort of cognitive disfluency?