September 21, 2008

Letting Students Experience Failure

One of the things that impressed me the most about my flight instructor was his ability to let his students make mistakes. Flying an airplane requires very precise motor control and close coordination. Your feet are on the rudder pedals, your left hand controls the ailerons and elevator, and your right hand controls the throttle, trim, and mixture. In addition to these coordinated motor controls, flight students need to learn how to make good judgments. You need to be able to estimate how high you should be at any moment during an approach to a landing. You need to predict and judge how much the wind will blow you off course. These are just some examples.

It doesn’t work for the instructor to do all of this for the student. The only way the student is able to learn these motor skills and judgments is by making mistakes for him or herself. The thing is, mistakes can be very unforgiving in an airplane. Instructors have the difficult task of letting students make enough mistakes to learn, but not letting students make catastrophic mistakes. Sometimes this can be a very fine line, especially when the student is learning how to land.

Good classroom teachers need to let students make mistakes as well. Just as in an airplane, teachers need to provide guidance. Teachers are sort of like bowling lane bumpers. They should give students plenty of leeway, but steer them back on course when it’s obvious that the student has veered too far off track. Knowing how much leeway to give is a big decision. For flight instructors, this could be a life-or-death decision. The decision isn’t quite as critical for classroom teachers, but it’s still important.

We started our formal debate in Law this week. The resolution is, “marijuana should be legalized in the US”. Tuesday and Wednesday were research days, and the debate started on Thursday. The first speaker for the pro side gave her presentation, during which everyone was very attentive. The cross examination followed, and that’s when all order in the room disappeared.

Instead of asking questions one at a time and actively listening to responses, as they were instructed to do, it was complete chaos. One half of the class was shouting at the other half of the class, and the poor student whose turn it was to present was desperately trying to make sense of it all and respond to at least some of the questions. Of course, no one heard or cared about her responses, because they were all deeply engaged in their shouting matches.

I was deliberately quiet and observant during this whole ordeal. After about two minutes of this, one of the students looked over at me and asked, “aren’t you going to stop this?” My nonchalant reply was, “nope!” After three minutes, the previously agreed-upon time limit for cross exams, I finally broke it up. I debriefed the cross-exam session. The class talked about why it was important to follow the agreed upon rules. We talked about “attack the idea; respect the person” and what that phrase meant. The debriefing was very effective and the subsequent cross-exams went very smoothly.

The students failed miserably at the first cross exam. This failure gave them first-hand knowledge of what happens when we don’t follow the procedures. The students knew what the failure looked like and why it didn’t work. They knew what they had to do to improve next time.

Had I intervened early, as the student suggested, they would not have experienced this failure. Their attitude would have been, “the teacher will intervene if we don’t follow the rules”. This is not what I wanted them to learn. By allowing the students to fail, their attitude became “that certainly didn’t work – now I know what to do next time”.

“Let the students experience failure” is a very powerful heuristic that teachers can use. Just like flight instructors, teachers need to use it carefully and strategically. Many times, though, it’s the most effective way to teach.


Linda said...

I got into a lot of trouble for suggesting that failure can be beneficial - even if the only thing it teaches is: don't do that again.

It does run contrary to the prevailing paradigm that student self-esteem must be preserved at all costs.

However, I still maintain that we learn the most when we screw up - it's painful, but, for that reason, VERY memorable.

Analía said...

Hi! I'm an Uruguayan EFL teacher finding new ways to encourage students to write. To do so, we have created two blogs where they are starting to post; however,I think they would feel more motivated if they knew people from around the world visit them and read what they have to say.
Could you help me? Please, visit their blogs and leave a comment. I'll appreciate it.

Betty said...

Students do need to learn from their mistakes. Sometimes it is easier to intervene and make sure everything goes smoothly. You are right about timing. By the way, I can't even imagine being a flight instructor or flying a plane. That must take nerves of steel.