Saturday, January 11, 2014

Why is Failure Bad in the Classroom?

Saturday is grocery-shopping day for me. Most weeks find me driving the short distance to our small town grocery store. I like it there. Running into parents and students in the aisles. Talking to former students as they bag my groceries. The trip usually makes me smile.

Every few weeks I have to trek over to the larger city nearby to stock up on items I cannot find in our small town store. The trip is twenty plus miles each way and I have lately been using the time to listen to podcasts from Matthew Winner. Each one teaches me something new or makes me think in a new way. Today was no exception.

As I drove home I loaded a new podcast, this one is with Jennifer LaGarde. While the entire episode I’ve listened to so far is wonderful, the part that really struck me, that made me grab my laptop to type, was about grading and video games. Jennifer and Matthew have done a lot with gaming in the math classroom. As a reading teacher, I find this fascinating. Jennifer said, and I’m completely paraphrasing here, that she finds it interesting that students will play video games, die, and keep playing. They don’t see their death as a failure at all. Dying on a level means they can learn from their mistakes and they jump back into the game. But a failure on a test – a 58% for example – creates a feeling of failure in our students. They don’t see it as a success that they have learned 58% of the material so far and need to keep working. Instead, they know they failed. Fail enough in school and you begin to give up. I’ve seen that time and time again.

Terraria Narrative
So what can we do as teachers to change that? How can we harness the mindset from gaming and transfer it into our classrooms? I know what Jennifer said to be true – I’ve seen it with my own children. Our report cards for second quarter were handed out yesterday. One of my kids said his was “bad” because he had a B in math. Straight A’s, one B, and it is considered a bad report card in his mind. Wow. We quickly had a chat about that – did he try his best? Yes. Then I consider it an excellent report card. This same child just wrote a three-page narrative for his language arts teacher on what he learned from dying over and over in Terraria and how he will pass the level as a result. He spent hours over the past few days creating a guidebook of notes on the various “bosses” in Terraria and how to kill each one. He then assembled that into book form to hand out to his friends so they can pass the newest level. He loves failing, learning, and moving on in the world of video games. He loves learning. Why isn’t this the same for him at school?

Looking at my own classroom, I need to examine this as well. I’m not sure what this will look like in the reading and writing classroom, but I’m interested to find out. How can I let them explore more on their own? Guide their own learning? I’m thinking of self-assessment for our next writing project. A conference at the start where they set goals on what they want to accomplish and a conference at the end where they grade themselves on how they feel they did. Maybe some self-guided learning? We’ll see.

What I know is that engagement rises when you are invested in what you are learning. I don’t want my students to look at their report card and wonder where those grades came from. I don’t want them to see themselves as a failure because they got a “B.” I want them to fail, learn from failure, and grow more as a result. That is a valuable skill not just for their fifth grade language arts class, but for life. I want the focus not to be on obtaining straight A's, but on learning, growing, pushing oneself. I’m not sure what this will look like in our room, but I know I am anxious to find out. I’ll keep you posted.

If you haven’t heard Matthew’s podcast, add it to your weekly listening library. You can find it HERE