The usefulness of failure

I am honored to be guest-blogging for Joanne Jacobs between now and May 29. I have written for the Core Knowledge Blog, Common Core, New York Teacher, and elsewhere. I teach literature and theater at a Core Knowledge school in New York City. Later in the week I will write about “learning goals,” “professional development,” and more. Today I will start out with one of my favorite topics, failure, which was treated recently in a brilliant parody by Gently Hew Stone.

With the recent release of ELA test scores in New York City, we hear, yet again, that Bloomberg and Klein regard their reforms as a great success. Beyond questioning the test scores themselves, I wonder just how helpful it is to go around proclaiming success in the first place. Is success an unequivocal good? Is it an end in itself?

With failure you learn your limits. You may or may not be able to stretch them, but you find out what they are. Failure is like the molding of a sculpture. The bronze must pour into something. If it spills all over the place in an endless gush of success, it takes no shape at all.

There are too many kinds of failure to enumerate, but here are a few of the common varieties:

  • Incidental failure. You know how to solve a problem, score a goal, or play a piece, you have done it right a hundred times before, but somehow, in the moment, you missed.
  • Conceptual failure. You did not quite understand the task at hand. (At age 14 I attended a Soviet school in Moscow. I proudly memorized a poem by Nekrasov and recited it. When the teacher questioned me on it, my answer was way off; my misunderstanding of the Russian particle “li” threw off my understanding of the whole poem).
  • Failure of ability (temporary). Sometimes we have not mastered the necessary skills for a particular task, and so we flub it: diving off the diving board, singing “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General,” etc.
  • Failure of ability (permanent). Some things are forever beyond our capacity. As a child I wanted to be an Olympic gymnast. I had little flexibility and was timid about doing flips. I practiced daily but never made the school gymnastics team, let alone the Olympics.
  • Failure of will. Sometimes we just give up in the moment or let some distraction or temptation take over.
  • Circumstantial failure. Sometimes there are truly forces beyond our control that prevent us from doing something: for instance, being turned down for a role in a play simply because someone else had priority in the director’s eyes.

All of these are frustrating, and all of these have much to teach us. Take them away, and we are left with a mishmash of self and surrounding world. Not long ago, I spoke with an opera singer who gives music lessons at a local music school. He was telling me that there is great pressure on music teachers to tell children that they are doing a wonderful job, no matter what the reality. What favor are we doing them? he asked. How can they improve if they do not develop a critical ear?

In his wonderful new book Why Don’t Students Like School? A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom, Dan Willingham points out, on p. 143, “If you want to increase your intelligence, you have to challenge yourself. That means taking on tasks that are a bit beyond your reach, and that means you may very well fail, at least the first time around. Fear of failure can therefore be a significant obstacle to tackling this sort of challenging work, but failure should not be a big deal.”

It is a common PR tactic to portray oneself and one’s organization as successful. “Put your best foot forward” has evolved over the years into “Market your personal brand.” This may be effective for sales, but it is not a good tactic for school systems. We should not be trumpeting our successes, when these brash sounds do not help children learn. We should not be walking advertisements. Our failures may be among our greatest gifts.

“For thence,—a paradox
Which comforts while it mocks,—
Shall life succeed in that it seems to fail:
What I aspired to be,
And was not, comforts me:
A brute I might have been, but would not sink i’ the scale.”

–Robert Browning, “Rabbi Ben Ezra”

Comments

  1. Diana…you might be interested in “The Logic of Failure,” by German researcher Dietrich Doerner. My review here.

  2. Tracy W says:

    The definition of success that I am aware of is “The achievement of something desired, planned, or attempted.” (a href=”http://www.answers.com/success”>http://www.answers.com/success, there are some other meanings but this seems the most obvious.) So yes, success is the end in itself. More precisely, success is what happens when you achieve whatever you desired, planned or attempted.

    With failure, you may or may not have learnt your limits. Figuring out successfully why you failed is a problem in itself. Debugging is really really hard work, I speak from experience.

    I don’t get your metaphor of a bronze statue. Why not define success as the mold, and failure as the gushing over of everything? It seems just as valid, or invalid, a translation.

    I also don’t see how the self-esteem movement (in your story about the opera singer giving music lessons) has anything to do with your main line of argument. Plenty of people have criticised the self-esteem movement for preventing students from finally achieving success.

    And while I agree that failure is an important part of learning, having students fail as part of the learning process is quite a different thing from saying that school systems should be failing. Would you like to go under the knife of a surgeon who considers failure to be among the greatest gifts?

  3. Diana Senechal says:

    When success is an end in itself, you can fiddle with the ends to make everyone successful. That is meaningless. For success to mean something, the end must have meaning. You have to succeed at a worthy endeavor. That in turn makes success more difficult, and failure comes into play along the way.

    You are right, failure in itself does not teach us anything. But it presents us with a problem. Never-ending success (or the appearance thereof) does not.

    I never said success was bad! You seem to be reading that into my argument, and it was never there. Yes, the self-esteem movement has at times prevented students from finally achieving success. The key word is “finally.” You have to know and grapple with your weaknesses in order to get there.

    And I agree with you. School systems should not be failing. We do everything in our power to help them succeed. But pretending that they are succeeding (by trumpeting questionable test score gains) is not a solution.

    Diana Senechal

  4. Physics Teacher says:

    There’s a difference between doing something “for real” and doing it while training.

    If you are an airline pilot “success” means “no mistakes”. But a pilot who makes no mistakes during simulator training is either a cyborg or wasting time. An environment like a simulator is precisely the one in which mistakes should be induced so that students can learn from them.

    K12 is far closer to simulator training than it is to “real life”. As such, it’s crazy to be defining success in school as an absence of mistakes.

    I see many kids who have straight A averages, meaning that they’ve made close to no mistakes (or trivial mistakes ) for the quarter. While in most cases these are the good kids who do make an effort and take the subjects seriously can we say that they’ve learned as much as they could have? Suppose you get 100% on a test. Good, right? Suppose we could have made the test harder and you still would have gotten 100%? Suppose we could have made the test substantially more difficult and you would have gotten 90%? In which of these cases were you “assessed” and/or challenged?

    Most people who’ve had no teaching experience may think that we could challenge kids intellectually during a unit and give a test that everyone should be able to do well on. This is akin to running up hills and bleacher to prepare for a road race that’s on flat ground. Problem is, that we’re supposed to constantly do “formative” assessments — which are supposed to result in constant “success” no matter where, and how long, we look.

    We should have never let educationists define success.

  5. Lightly Seasoned says:

    What? No, formative assessments are where the failures should show up. Summatives should look pretty good if the formatives did their job (and the student engaged with them). Because my students are immature, I tend to give some small amount of completion credit for formatives to keep them doing them, but I don’t take real grades.

    If a kid has 100% on formatives, their time is being wasted; if they struggled with the formatives and achieved a 90% – 100% on the summative, then ya, I’d say some learning took place.

    I tend to keep my kids working in the “zone” — it always feels kinda hard to them. I make an effort to go back and show them their success — that they learned something — nobody wants to think they’re failing all the time.

    Again, balance.

  6. Physics Teacher says:

    When I was taking all those intellectually stimulating ed school classes, we were explicitly told that a lesson goes something like this: Introduce concept, teach concept (using the variety show method), assess whether concept sank in, meaning that 95% (yes, this is the figure we were given) got the concept. This is an absurdly small time frame for people to learn a physics concept.

    I’ve seen people who’ve graduated from prestigious university with engineering/physics degrees who’ll readily admit that some idea escaped them for years. Yet my students, most of whom couldn’t even care less about the subject matter, are to get everything by the end of the lesson.

    Imagine being a doctor, setting a broken bone, and expecting to see measurable healing 10 minutes later. If not, RE-SET the broken bone.

    In addition to ed school, this is precisely how my ed school indoctrinated boss treats me. Like I said, I’ve had kids who can’t multiply by ten. I’ve had honor students who don’t know the order of operations. Will these kids ALL understand how magnetic fields and moving charges interact, and will this happen while my boss pops in for a 45 minute visit? If only one kid in the class blurts out “I don’t understand”, and I don’t “re-teach”, then I’m bad. If I had to constantly re-teach I’d still be covering the first week’s material.

    I still say that the formative assessment craze is appropriate only for trivial pursuit type material.

  7. Tracy W says:

    Diane, I’m with you that the appearance of success, when things are actually failing, is a bad thing. What I was responding to was the question “Is success an unequivocal good?”. If you had asked “Is the appearance of success an unequivocal good?” I’d’ve responded in a different way.

    When success is an end in itself, you can fiddle with the ends to make everyone successful. That is meaningless. For success to mean something, the end must have meaning. You have to succeed at a worthy endeavor.

    So when I finally managed to complete the fly-through level on the Star Wars computer game (the first one to come out on CD), I shouldn’t have applied the word “success” to it on the basis that it wasn’t a worthy endeavour? It certainly felt like success to me. It strikes me that you’re attempting to redefine the word “success” here.

    I never said success was bad! You seem to be reading that into my argument, and it was never there.

    Then what were you trying to say? If you weren’t trying to say that success was bad, why did you ask “Is success an unequivocal good?” and making an argument for failure?

    We do everything in our power to help them succeed.

    Actually I don’t. I have other goals in my life. Also I’m rather lazy and inclined to procrastinate.

    Physics Teacher: This is akin to running up hills and bleacher to prepare for a road race that’s on flat ground.

    I thought that over-training was a good thing, assuming that you don’t injure yourself in the process. To quote someone, “Practice makes perfect – but only if you practice beyond the point of perfect”. See http://www.adihome.org/articles/DIN_04_02_10.pdf. I have a friend who was into band music, and would lead the band, and she used to practice wearing wrist weights while she waved her baton, so when it came time for the performance, hey, her arms were so light, she could wave that baton all day!
    Of course there are some exceptions, eg I understand from marathon runners that they don’t run marathon lengths until the day of the marathon because that distance takes too much out of their bodies. And perhaps the muscles you use for running up hills are so different to running on flat land that such practice would be useless. But on the whole, training to beyond what you will have to produce strikes me as sensible.

    As for your kids, isn’t the problem there that the previous teachers didn’t teach to mastery? I also note that there are differences between being able to do something, and a real deep understanding. It took me about three years of calculus to really grasp why setting the differential to zero worked for both minimums and maximums (okay I wasn’t studying calculus all that time, but we kept coming back to that topic). Until then though I got great marks in calculus as I just memorised the process and I memorised the explanation and reproduced it as required. Willingham calls this rote knowledge, as distinct from deep knowledge. I think what you’re looking for in a single lesson is rote knowledge.

    Imagine being a doctor, setting a broken bone, and expecting to see measurable healing 10 minutes later. If not, RE-SET the broken bone.

    Brains are different from bones – for most human beings they are capable of learning faster. Also, if you’re perpetually re-setting bones, it’s time to revisit the initial bone-setting method. Perhaps your school should be lowering its expectations for what is to be taught in a lesson? Perhaps it’s placing the wrong people into classes? (Note, I attribute these issues to your school, not to you. As far as I can tell, effective teaching requires the whole school, or school district, to cooperate, it’s silly to expect individual teachers to magically overcome all the problems that schooling throws up).

  8. Margo/Mom says:

    Physics Teacher–you are apparently unaware of the pilot’s definition of a “good landing,” which is any landing that you can walk away from. This was certainly true of the pilot who successfully landed on the Hudson River.

    I think I went to ed school at a different time than you did–we mostly learned how to run a projector and how to run multi-colored dittoes (in addition to our content areas). But, among the things that I have learned from teachers (or ed experts, rather–since teachers make a distinction) recently is the importance of starting with a pre-test. For too many this is a useless step in which the give the final test at the beginning to make sure that their kids don’t already know what they are going to be taught. A couple of math experts explained to me that it is just as important to know what students know that is wrong (that is over-generalization of previously learned concepts), or holes in their pre-existing knowledge base that will stand in the way of learning the intended content. This then should shape the content and the way in which it is taught. I would imagine that the timeline you describe would depend a good deal on the complexity or grain size of the “concept” that you are teaching. I don’t know that the 10 minute analogy to bone-setting necessarily holds. It is sometimes the practice for physicians to x-ray a set bone to determine progress of healing and to determine how long the cast should remain–or in certain cases, perhaps, to reset.

  9. Physics Teacher says:

    As for your kids, isn’t the problem there that the previous teachers didn’t teach to mastery?

    Two points:

    First, if they didn’t, it’s likely because they had to put up with the same kind of edu-philosophy that I do.

    Second, “Mastery” seems to imply a level that everyone can reach. If everyone can master everything that’s presented to them (the “right” way, that is) then there’s no reason why everyone and their brother and sister can’t be rocket scientists.

    In the courses I teach if a kid “masters” everything he/she is supposed to master, the kid may as well collect a BS in physics long with the HS diploma. Only a few kids will achieve that level of understanding. The rest won’t, and pretending that they will only prevents the sharper kids from learning what they would otherwise.

    I also note that there are differences between being able to do something, and a real deep understanding.

    How very true. If I try to teach kids how to draw free-body diagrams they can learn to do so by following a set of rules and procedures. Over time, as they get better at the procedure they’ll start seeing the big picture better and eventually acquire a deeper understanding.

    The problem is that many kids, instead of following directions, will scream “I don’t understand!”, even before picking up a pencil. I can say “draw a box. Label it with the mass. Draw an arrow representing the force of gravity on the box., etc.” Without missing a beat the kid will reply “But I don’t understand!”. The fact that the kids themselves expect instant understanding before they’ve rubbed two brain cells together is a sign of a big problem.

    Another problem is that when and if the boss is in the room the screaming kid becomes part of the narrative that forms the bulk of my evaluation.

    Some kids follow directions, quietly, and they’re the ones who eventually experience an epiphany and begin to understand things. But it’s the whiners who expect instant success who not only slow the class down but put me in a position where I have to dumb things so they “get it” without thinking.

    I think what you’re looking for in a single lesson is rote knowledge.

    I think you’re supporting my point. What you call rote knowledge was a first, and necessary step, in greater understanding. Current edu-fads pretend that we can jump to the deep understanding immediately.

    Brains are different from bones – for most human beings they are capable of learning faster.

    Bones, from what I know, take about 8 weeks to heal. Ideas take longer than that.

    Also, if you’re perpetually re-setting bones, it’s time to revisit the initial
    bone-setting method.

    Exactly my point.

    Perhaps your school should be lowering its expectations for what is to be taught in a lesson?

    The plot thickens. Last year I took questions from old NYS Regents physics exams and used them to create a test. The average was in the mid-60’s which I understand is about the average for NYS Regents physics examination takers throughout several decades. And, the class I was teaching is not NYS Regents material by long shot. I thought it was a decent performance considering the context. In addition, the class started taking the subject more seriously and focusing more. Mission accomplished? Not quite,

    The all-knowing boss calls me in and wants to know why they did so “badly” on the test. I tried to explain the source of the questions and the relative performance of my students with respect to thousands of NYS test takers and my boss just dismissed everything I had to say as if I was five years old. She then lectures me — again like I’m five — on the importance of “high expectations” and accuses me — yes — of having LOW EXPECTATIONS

    Perhaps it’s placing the wrong people into classes?

    True again. However, the current edu-fad seems to be to cram as many students as possible into the most difficult classes. Look at what people like Jay Mathews have to say about admitting as many kids as possible into AP classes.

    it’s silly to expect individual teachers to magically overcome all the problems
    that schooling throws up

    True. But the trend seems to be to blame teachers for more and more.

  10. Physics Teacher says:

    Physics Teacher–you are apparently unaware of the pilot’s definition of a “good landing,” which is any landing that you can walk away from.

    I’m well aware of this definition. I’m sure the airline wouldn’t agree with you if they had to pay for damaged landing gear while you walked away.

    I’m still sticking to my point. Judging training by a near absence of mistakes (as in current grading scales I see) is depriving kids of challenge.

    No wonder so many of them have no respect for school.

    This was certainly true of the pilot who successfully landed on the Hudson River.

    Has it occurred to you that he may have practiced a similar scenario in a simulator, killing many plane-loads of virtual passengers along the way, before he finally achieved the skill to do in right in real life?

    I we had tailored his similator profiles so he rarely, or
    never blew it, do you think he’d have had the ability to do
    it when it counted?

    I think I went to ed school at a different time than you did–we mostly learned how to run a projector and how to run multi-colored dittoes (in addition to our content areas).

    Your time in ed school sounds more productive than mine.

    that you are teaching. I don’t know that the 10 minute analogy to bone-setting necessarily holds. It is sometimes the practice for physicians to x-ray a set bone to determine progress of healing and to determine how long the cast should remain–or in certain cases, perhaps, to reset

    My point is that the timeline imposed from above is far too short to accomplish anything worthwhile. Again, this goes back to the ed-school teaching that one can be completely ignorant of the subject matter and yet magically be an expert in its teaching, and also able to evaluate teachers who know the subject.

  11. Lightly Seasoned says:

    Yes, Physics Teacher, I often hear AP Literature/AP Langauge described as “trivial pursuit.” Just because you don’t understand/are not permitted to use formative assessments properly, doesn’t mean they are not part of sound teaching practice.

    If in a high school year you are attempting to teach the equivalent of a college degree’s worth of physics, I’d say your curriculum needs a scotia bit of tweaking.

  12. Ponderosa says:

    Physics Teacher, as usual, I enjoy reading your lucid thoughts.

    I’m sure you are equally lucid when teaching physics. It’s not your fault that the whiny kids don’t get it. How many of your kids WHO REALLY TRY fail to get a reasonable grasp of the material? I’ll bet it’s few. Yet your boss looks at that whiny kid and asks, how could YOU do a better job, not, why is that kid not putting in a good faith effort? Why are our bosses always putting the whole onus on US? I imagine it’s because they feel that they have at least SOME control over us; they have little hope of controlling the behavior of lazy students. Also there’s this weird aversion to using “sticks” to motivate students. I’m getting fed up with this approach at my school. Of my 180 history students this year, 25 have made no discernible effort all year. Yet they will be passed on to eighth grade. I can’t help but believe that a meaningful retention threat –or SOME negative consequence for making zero effort –would have induced some of these students to make some effort to learn.

    I gave an essay quiz on Hobbes, Locke and Montesquieu today after “reading” about them in our relatively good textbook, taking notes on that, and a lecture. About 30% passed with flying colors. Most failed however. Is this an indictment of my teaching? Honestly the lecture was quite lucid (as a special ed aide in my class told me afterwards). I spent a lot of time preparing it. I used a lot of visuals. Several “average” kids had “aha” moments during it and a good number showed comprehension in oral questioning afterwards. But how many of the failing students actually listened? And how many studied their notes at home, as I required? Few, I reckon. Until we build in meaningful consequences for not trying, school is going to continue to be dumbed down. It seems we’re aiming to design schools where students who make no effort can succeed. This means infinite effort for the teachers.

  13. Diana Senechal says:

    Tracy,

    I appreciate your challenges and your precision with language. The problem is, the definitions go on and on. We could debate what is meant by a “worthy endeavor”; what is meant by “doing everything in our power”; and so on.

    You ask: “Then what were you trying to say? If you weren’t trying to say that success was bad, why did you ask ‘Is success an unequivocal good?’ and making an argument for failure?”

    Now that surprises me. Arguing that success is not an unequivocal good is not at all the same as arguing that success is bad.

    Diana Senechal

  14. Tracy W says:

    Diana, thanks for explaining what you were trying to say. I agree with you that the appearance of success is not necessarily the same as success itself.

    Physics Teacher – a lot of your problems appear to be caused by a stupid or ignorant school administration, and with failure of your students’ past teachers to teach everything to mastery. This doesn’t have much to do with the use of formative assessment.

    If you are actually managing to cover a BSc in physics worth of material during your students’ time at high school, while they are presumably taking multiple other subjects, either you are one incredible teacher or the universities near you have incredibly lazy physics professors.

    More specifically, yes, it may be that only a small percentage of your students will grasp all the concepts that you can present in a year. So what do you want the other students to get out of your class? To properly use formative assessment and teaching to mastery, you and your school administration would need to decide what that is (and in my magical hypothetical world somehow your school administration will not try to toss everything but the kitchen sink in), and see about teaching that to mastery.

    Mastery is not necessarily the same thing as deep knowledge, it can be merely being able to replicate a process. Yes, some exams aim at producing a distribution of results from students, and I can see the value when we have limited resources and, say, want to pick the best students to put through expensive courses for important jobs like medicine. But on the other hand there is value in improving the skills of everyone in the population, which is what the mastery material aims at.

    Ponderosa: Why are our bosses always putting the whole onus on US?

    Well, for the ages that education is compulsory, it makes sense. The government has, rightly or wrongly, decided that children under age x are not allowed to choose not to get an education, nor are their parents allowed to choose not to get an education. This is the situation that public schools’ principals, teachers, and other staff were hired under. Just as the police are hired and expected to catch criminals even the police never commit any crimes at all and many criminals actively try not to get caught.

    Now it may be that schools can’t force every single student to learn, any more than the police can catch and convict every murderer. And it may be that compulsory schooling laws are a bad thing. But as it is, educational professionals were hired in an environment with compulsary schooling, and their employers, who are the elected representatives of the taxpayers who pay school staff’s wages, want them to teach every student, so the professional obligation is during your working hours to do your professional best (within the boundaries of your contract, of course, I am not advocating slave labour here). As the police are expected to do their professional best to capture criminals, even if the criminal has no interest in being caught. If you want to campaign to end compulsory schooling, do so in your spare time.

    If some of your students don’t do homework, well the logical thing that strikes me is for your school to figure out how to teach without them doing homework. For example, there could be a slower stream where what is normally-assigned homework is done in-class and the class just covers less material during the year than it would otherwise.

    Your students aren’t listening? What the DI guys do is aim for students to be producing on average about 10 responses per minute, which means responses from the whole of the group being taught. A student who is responding ten times a minute has to be listening. Of course they may refuse to respond, there are various behavioural techniques, they probably won’t work on every student, but if students are merely not listening then there are things schools can do to increase the odds that the students are listening.

  15. Diana Senechal says:

    Tracy,

    No, that’s not exactly what I was saying. Sometimes success is success, but still trivial. I did not say that success must be attached to a worthy endeavor in order to be success at all. Success can be silly or serious, temporary or lasting. Success as an abstract concept means nothing.

    If test scores go up, there is success. Success at what? At raising the test scores. Does it indicate learning? It may or may not.

    So the key question is “Success at what?”

    I believe that most meaningful and substantial successes involve some form of failure along the way.

    Diana Senechal

  16. Margo/Mom says:

    Tracy:

    I just want to give you props for your lengthy explanation. While I am not opposed in any sense to holding students accountable for things, I also believe in holding adults accountable for the things that they are properly accountable for–your explanation is quite sound.

    This is not a unique situation in education. Public health officials, for instance, deal with such broad areas as epidemiology and environmental health. This involves, at times, motivating individuals to do various things that they are required (or advised) to do. Public health workers or agencies are still, at the end of the day, judged by their effectiveness at making the indicators move up or down–which may mean finding ways to impact births to teen parents, rates of immunization, use of prophelactics–all manner of individual choices.

  17. Physics Teacher says:

    Physics Teacher – a lot of your problems appear to be caused by a stupid or ignorant school administration,

    They’re only the tip of the iceberg. The bottom part of the iceberg are the educationists who’ve hatched boneheaded ideas which they attempt to apply to all situations, even ones they don’t understand.

    It seems to me that you’ve never taken a physics course. Some of the most fundamental ideas in physics also happen to be the ones most difficult to grasp. Being fundamental, however, we can’t just postpone them for graduate school, so we need to introduce them in any comprehensive course on physics, high school or otherwise.

    You should note that human beings have been “engaged” in all sorts of physical activities for tens of thousands of years, and yet adequate models for physical systems didn’t come about until Galileo and Newton. Why is that? Great minds of antiquity, like that of Aristotle, wrestled with physical problems — and lost. What does this tell you about the likelyhood of human beings easily grasping physics concepts?

    Look at a typical high school physics text. Now look at a typical college physics text. They cover exactly the same material The only difference with college textbooks is that they’re usually more mathematically sophisticated, but they cover the same ground as the high school text. A high school text may introduce work as the product of a force over the distance in which it acts while the college text introduces work as the dot product of a force and a displacement — which is just a more formalized way of saying the same thing. So why are college courses covering the same ground that high high school students were to have “mastered”? What’s even better, is that most of the people who are taking calculus-based physics in high school excelled in the subject in high school, often getting perfect scores on everything. Why are they now taking physics again if they were supposed to have mastered the material in HS? Why not just have them take calculus and let them apply it to the concepts which they have allegedly mastered? And we’re talking here about the outstanding students. How are the average, or below average, students supposed to “master” material that the rocket scientists don’t really grok until grad school?

    The reality is that HS students won’t master any substantial amount of material that they see in a class no matter how many education experts claim the contrary.

    and with failure of your students’ past teachers to teach everything
    to mastery.

    Yes, if they only taught to mastery, it would be possible for me to do the same. Sure.

    One of the reasons these previous teachers don’t teach to
    anything approaching mastery is because they’re forced to teach (to mastery, of course) all sorts of “higher level thinking” at the expense of facts and skills that are necessary for that thinking. Who do we thank for that? Educationists, take a bow.

    This doesn’t have much to do with the use of formative assessment.

    Yeah, it does. Because educationists love to apply their pet theories to subject matter they don’t understand.

    If a HS teacher of Arabic tells me that English-speaking students cannot master certain aspects of Arabic grammar/pronounciation, at least within the time frame over which the course is taught, who am I to argue otherwise? I could, of course, put on my educationist hat and say something like “I don’t know anything about Arabic, but I’m an expert on education, because I teach physics, you know — oh and I have a masters degree in education — so if your students aren’t getting something it’s because you aren’t teaching it, and maybe you should familiarize yourself with the idea of, you know, formative assessment. That is, you should assess whether your students are getting it and if they’re not you should reteach…….Now run along and teach them Arabic to mastery.

  18. Tracy W says:

    Margo/Mom – thanks.

    Diane – well apparently we are experiencing lots of failure in communication here, which I think is a good thing as this is an environment with low penalties for failure.

    Physics Teacher: It seems to me that you’ve never taken a physics course.

    I have a degree in electrical engineering.

    Now look at a typical college physics text. They cover exactly the same material … . A high school text may introduce work as the product of a force over the distance in which it acts while the college text introduces work as the dot product of a force and a displacement — which is just a more formalized way of saying the same thing.

    How can they be covering exactly the same material if the second course covers it in a more formalised way? I’ve studied enough mathematics and tutored it enough to know that there’s a big difference between the informal explain it to lay people stage of “work as the product of a force over the distance in which it acts” and the formalised understanding. Mathematicians, engineers and physicists have formalised how they say things because there is value in being very precise. Dot products are a different, more powerful way of looking at a subject than the initial presentations you get at high school. They are not “exactly the same material”.

    My Bayesian-style assessment of the probability that the hypothesis that in your part of the world your physics professors are dead lazy is true is starting to go up – if they really only cover the same material as high school physics courses. In my engineering course we covered, from the physics topics, things like Maxwell’s Equations, calculating heat transfers, the frequency domain, and modern system control theory, to list just a few. None of them I studied in my high school physics courses. And while I never did physics myself, and I admit that a number of my fellow engineering students dropped out of the department and transferred to physics because they couldn’t hack the engineering course, I did have a number of friends who did BScs in physics, and one who did a PhD, and they didn’t say that they were merely repeating high school, though they did say that the 101 courses were merely a repeat of 7th form (our last year at high school). But that was in NZ I admit, and you know more about university physics teaching in your area than I do.

    Some of the most fundamental ideas in physics also happen to be the ones most difficult to grasp. Being fundamental, however, we can’t just postpone them for graduate school, so we need to introduce them in any comprehensive course on physics, high school or otherwise.

    So then define your definition of mastery for your course as the ability to repeat the idea, even if there’s no understanding yet. Or whatever level of achievement is appropriate for the ordinary student in your class.

    As for the rest of your work, no, I don’t expect you to get every student to mastery on every physics topic. That’s why I said, in my earlier comment:

    More specifically, yes, it may be that only a small percentage of your students will grasp all the concepts that you can present in a year. So what do you want the other students to get out of your class?

    And before that I said:

    I think what you’re looking for in a single lesson is rote knowledge.

    I am already agreeing with you that not every student will fully master the physics concepts within one year. You have absolutely no need to keep arguing with me about that, you had convinced me thoroughly three posts previously, that’s why I keep saying things where I agree with you on that point. What I keep saying is that define whatever you reasonably expect your ordinary students to actually master within a year – which may be merely rote knowledge – and look for that in your formative assessments.

    For your Arabic high school teacher, I think you would be entirely justified in asking the teacher what they do expect their students to master within the time-frame of the course, and then suggest that they use formative assessment to teach those things to mastery. Which may be merely rote memorisation of a set of common phrases, such as you see in courses like “travellers’ Arabic”. (“Hello”, “Goodbye”, “Thank you”). Or it may be a set of dry skills of no use directly in talking/reading/writing/hearing Arabic, but that are essential for going on to learn Arabic, like knowing the English alphabet is essential for learning to read or write English. But that’s fine, rote knowledge is for most of us in most academic topics an essential part of the learning process.

  19. Physics Teacher says:

    I am already agreeing with you that not every student will fully master the physics concepts within one year.

    What I’m trying to point out is that no matter what time frame you observe you will find that some kid doesn’t understand something. The likelyhood that the kid will understand it at some point throughout the year is small. Therefore, the requirement that I “reteach” every single time someone doesn’t get something will simply result in the entire class stalling and getting bored, and not learning much either.

    One of my colleagues, as of this point in the year, has just gotten to the point of introducing potential energy. I have little doubt that he got caught up in the re-teach cycle and these high school kids are essentially re-living 8-th grade physical science. And I don’t think his students have mastered mechanics to a greater extent than mine have. I hold these suspicions because one of his students likes to stop by and chat with one of mine. I don’t see any evidence that she’s mastered mechanics either.

    I got chewed out last year because I had kids in the class who didn’t get vector fields, and, gasp, I didn’t reteach. And when I say “vector fields” I’m not talking about a treatment from a college emag book. I’m talking about materials that came with their textbooks and web applets and activities designed specifically for high school students. How much re-teaching can I possibly do? The result is that I’m forced to dumb-down and to dumb-down. The sad part is that there are always one or two kids in the class who could benefit from the more rigorous mathematics, but all it takes is one kid screaming “I don’t get it!” to put the kabosh on everyone’s learning.

    I have no doubt that the philosophy of “re-teach until they all master (however you choose to define the term) the material is responsible for the state of education in the US. There is such a disparity in ability between the smartest/hardest-working students and the least able, that no matter how you define mastery some kid will always not master the material and the train has to come to a halt.

    Also, you suggested that it was my particular adminstration who’s to blame. I’ve seen exactly the same kind of thinking in ed school, the schools I’ve subbed at, and the schools I’ve student-taught at.

    For your Arabic high school teacher, I think you would be entirely justified in asking the teacher what they do expect their students to master within the time-frame of the course, and then suggest that they use formative assessment to teach those things to mastery. Which may be merely rote memorisation of a set of common phrases, such as you see in courses like “travellers’ Arabic”. (”Hello”, “Goodbye”, “Thank you”). Or it may be a set of dry skills of no use directly in talking/reading/writing/hearing Arabic, but that are essential for going on to learn Arabic, like knowing the English alphabet is essential for learning to read or write English. But that’s fine, rote knowledge is for most of us in most academic topics an essential part of the learning process.

    Sure. I can define mastery such that all will master the subject in the time given. I never said that this wasn’t possible. But the price will be an entire generation of ignorant kids, the kind we keep hearing about every day.

    You’ve said that my problem was the prior teachers didn’t teach to mastery. Whose idea of mastery are we talking about here? I’m sure that the all the prior teachers defined mastery so as to be able to claim that their students mastered the material.

  20. Margo/Mom says:

    PT–I have been following your discussion here and thinking heavily on whether on not I wanted to jump in. Using your train analogy, it seems as though the way you envision education is like a train, which travels through the landscape, filled with students. Students are all charged with looking out the windows and taking in all that they can see–which of course will vary from student to student. Any attempt to stop the train to enhance what is picked up from any particular piece of the landscape, or to slow the train, will inhibit the train reaching some particular destination, that you are very interested in reaching.

    To your mind, the journey, and knowing the landscape along the way are not only variable, but possibly also irrelevant.

    Great oversimplification, of course, but we have been dealing with such oversimplifications (idiotic administrators, educationists, boneheaded ideas, etc).

    I find it a bit surprising that your field is physics. As an English major myself, I would have supposed that physics would rely much more heavily on constructing such conceptual building blocks (that is, learning the landscape of the journey), and that mastery of topics and sub-topics would figure heavily in the ability of students to continue to learn as they go along (I would have supposed that “spiraling” or continually revisiting topics in the hope that the kids who weren’t there yet last year would pick it up this year would fall into the educationists heap).

    I have lately been reading Christensen (Disrupting Class) and the possibilities for more “student-centric” education being facilitated by technology. Most of the stuff that is currently available is still pretty clunky (waaaaaay too many online workbooks), but the idea of building on something like mastery in a progression of learning experiences is really implicit in much of the currently available software. I fully believe that mastery-based education, attuned to student’s individual learning styles, interests and pacing is within reach. It has been a number of years since the state licensing board for nursing went to a computerized testing system. The prospective licensee answers questions until the computer is satisfied of either success or failure. If it stops soon after starting, one knows that they either did really well, or really poorly. The ones that continue for some time are those that are close to the line.

    There are all kinds of other mastery based skills assessments in medical education. We all learned on Resusci-Annie how to blow breaths with an instructor making sure that the chest rose and fell and we followed all the steps. Todays mannequins can throw in (at the request of the instructor) all kinds of other complexities–slow, rapid or absent pulse, bleeding and other bodily fluid presences–lots of masteries that we could formerly only assess in real life experiences.

    I have played kids games on computers that called on me to apply some principals of physics–building a faster racer, for instance.

    I truly believe that in the near future we will have the ability to blow up the train concept of education. We may have to sacrifice our current organizational assumptions–such as grade levels and what report cards communicate, not to mention the role of teachers. We may become less concerned with how many students reach “proficiency” and more concerned with the average age at which they reach it, or how many years it takes them to get there. But, I do think that the concept of teaching to mastery will continue to be an important concept.

  21. Ponderosa:  Be careful that you aren’t turning history into Trivial Pursuit.  My own experience with history “education” was that exams demanded regurgitation of factoids like dates without context.  For those who can cram such things, they are forgotten immediately after the test; for borderline Aspies like me who need to be able to put facts into a framework, the factoids are impossible to learn in the first place.  No amount of “meaningful consequences” will change that.  (You may produce some dropouts and suicides, though.)

    I usually aced math and science classes.  I finished my junior year of high school with a full year’s worth of AP credits for calculus and physics.  (There are essentially no factoids in math and physics.)  Yet “meaningful consequences” for failure under those standard methods used by history teachers would have flunked me out.

    If I still cared about anything that happened in middle and high school, I would hate my history teachers to this day.  They produced the most pain of any teachers I ever had, and caused me to believe the subject totally worthless until long after I was out of school.  I would spare others that fate, and I hope you see my point.

  22. Matthew says:

    Diana,

    Although she approaches the issue of failure and success from the seemingly mundane perspective of a parenting guide, Wendy Mogel’s Blessing of a Skinned Knee echoes your theme quite eloquently

    In a world where outcomes are frequently distributed on a normal curve, Mogel argues that our children will fail as often as they succeed. (by definition 50% of us have to score below average). Since our children are unlikely to succeed equally at all things they try, to expect this of them is, ironically, to set them up for failure.

    So she argues we need to teach our children to learn from their failures, how to adapt and move on, and overcome.

    In their defense Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein don’t have kids at home any more. So the book probably wasn’t a hot topic of discussion in their peer group.

  23. Tracy W says:

    Physics Teacher – what do you realistically hope that your students will get out of your high school physics class?

  24. Physics Teacher says:

    Perhaps I should make explicit the distinction between formative assessment and Formative Assessment! (TM).

    I’ve seen this kind of thing when I worked in the IT industry. Metaphorically speaking, people may have used hammers for years but suddenly management comes along and invents The Hammer! (TM), and suddenly every thingy looks like a nail, even thingies with threads and phillips heads cut into them. The Hammer! (TM) usage is mandated from above, and in situation where its use may be inappropriate.

    This is my opinion of Formative Assessment! (TM)

    Here’s a story about the best teacher I’ve ever had, high school or otherwise. He was Mr. Binkowski, AKA Bink, who taught 10th grade biology. He didn’t make biology interesting; he fed it to us raw. There were no movies, arts-and-crafts, coloring books, projects, or posters. We had dissections, activities like typing our own blood, and the textbook, which we subjected to a lot of wear and tear.

    Bink had a standing rule (among a few): On lab day you must answer all questions correctly, or you can’t go home. Normally, this didn’t affect me, but there was one time where the tables were turned completely and I was the only one after school racking my brain on a single question.

    A series of questions on the paper went something like this: “What happens to tea when you put lemon juice in it”, followed by “what is litmus paper made of”. For reasons I can’t fully explain, at the time I took for granted that manufactured products couldn’t possibly have any biological origin, so the second question completely stumped me.

    Bink was in front of the room, apparently doing paperwork or grading something. After scratching my head I would go up to him and tell him that I didn’t get it. He would say something like “the answer is staring you in the face”. I would go back to my desk and the process would repeat itself. Over and over.

    After what seemed like at least an hour I ran out of possibilities for the origin of litmus paper and began to ponder the possibility that “plants” just might be the answer. When I presented Bink with this answer he said “You can go home”.

    I can just see the observation report if this happened today:

    Mr. Binkowski was observed interacting with a student. The student would repeatedly approach Mr. Binkowski claiming not to understand the material, but Mr. Binkowski offered no further instruction beyond saying the the answer was staring the student in the face. Student had clearly not learned the material but Mr. Binkowski kept using only one learning strategy which wasn’t working.

    Professional Development suggestions: Mr. Binkowski needs to adopt a set of formative assessments to ascertain whether students are learning the material and then to adopt a varying set of strategies to overcome student deficits. Mr. Binkowski was observed to do neither.

    Recommendation for re-appointment Unless Mr. Binkowski addresses the concerns expressed in this document before the end of this school year it is recommended that he not be re-appointed

    No one would observe, of course, that I’m relating this story 32 YEARS LATER and that I can describe it greater detail and context than many of my students can describe yesterday.

    Was Bink completely ignorant of formative assessment, or is it possible that he knew exactly what he was doing, even if he didn’t do it within a time frame carved out by Formative Assessment! (TM) gurus?

    BTW, I got only one wrong on the NYS Regents Biology exam that year, and I even knew which question I could have gotten wrong. He called me and told me about my exam and confirmed which question I got wrong. Also, I believe that no one from my class failed that exam, which was a rarity.

    What I’m trying to say is that Formative Assessment! (TM) imposes an artificial constraint on someone who knows the material in question by someone who, usually, knows nothing.

    I’ve given question to students like the following “A car goes from 0 to 60 in 4 seconds. What is the acceleration in meters per second squared”. I will invariably hear whining like “What’s the initial velocity”. What, exactly, am I to re-teach? If I ignore the whining very often I will hear “Duh. I’m so stupid. It’s ZERO!” a few minutes later. Of course, if I do this, I’m the bad guy for not reteaching and not responding to the “fact” that the student “hasn’t learned the material”.

    This is why I jumped in on the topic to begin with. By continually removing failure from the path of every student we’ve actually taught them helplessness and ignorane.

  25. Diana Senechal says:

    Physics teacher, you hit the nail on the head with the good hammer of the brain, not the The Hammer! (TM).

    Diana Senechal

  26. Tracy W says:

    Physics Teacher – to me Mr. Binkowski sounds like he was using formative assessment (if not Formative Assessment(TM)), in particular with his rule that you have to answer all the questions on lab day. Yep, he placed more of the onus on you to get it right than on the teacher, which seems to me to be appropriate in that time and place. You spent what, an hour, looking at the problem? At about age 16/17? Hardly seems extreme and doesn’t match up with the 8 weeks it takes a bone to heal.

    And I still don’t know what you realistically hope that your ordinary students will get out of your physics course.

  27. Physics Teacher says:

    Physics Teacher – to me Mr. Binkowski sounds like he was using formative assessment (if not Formative Assessment(TM)),

    Yes.

    Yep, he placed more of the onus on you to get it right than on the teacher, which seems to me to be appropriate in that time and place. You spent what, an hour, looking at the problem? At about age 16/17? Hardly seems extreme

    I never said it was extreme. I liked it. The people who do think it’s extreme are the edu-gurus.

    You don’t think an hour of thinking is extreme? My supervisor for student teaching, an arrogant windbag who retired after more than three decades as an assistant principal, seemed to think that between 15 seconds and 3 minutes of thinking was extreme and tantamount to abuse on my part.

    For one of my student teaching lessons I had an activity which was pretty much completely brainless, except for the very end where some thought was required. Students typically said “Huh?”, scratched heads for 15 to about 180 seconds, said “Oh Yeah!”, and handed their product in.

    TOO MUCH THINKING for the windbag, apparently. He observed that students “didn’t know what to do” (between “Huh?” and “Oh Yeah”) because, apparently, I hadn’t “modeled the behavior” before letting them have a go at it. Had I “modeled the behavior”, I would have let the cat out of the bag and the activity would have been completely mindless. In addition, while the kids were busy rubbing brain cells together I didn’t react and teach them what they didn’t know.

    and doesn’t match up with the 8 weeks it takes a bone to heal.

    Some things take longer. It seems to take forever for kids to grasp the idea of vectors, far longer than 8 weeks. If you have a better way to do it, I’m all ears. But I don’t want ignorant windbags in my face expecting it to happen in one lesson, which they do.

    And I still don’t know what you realistically hope that your ordinary students will get out of your physics course.

    When I first started teaching I was amazed at how little these kids were capable of. I graduated from a very average HS that would never make any list of good schools. I now teach in a district that is considered very good. I first thought that it was my imagination telling me that my HS classmates learned more in our physics classes. I went back and retrieved the Regents examinations from my era and, sure enough, we had to know so much more.

    Before you say I’m a stinky teacher, I want you to know that I’ve had a number of students transfer into my class from other schools in the area and the school district. Invariably, they’re always behind what my kids are learning, and, they’re no more expert in the material that they’ve spent more time on. The exceptions are students from foreign countries. Not too long ago I had a student from China who hit the ground running and instantly became the best student in the class. Even more recently, a student from Bangladesh arrived and hit the ground running, if only because of an excellent work ethic, which is absent in most of my “native” students.

    If I had given the bottom half of my classes F’s for the first quarter I’m sure I’d have more informed students now. And I probably wouldn’t have to give any F’s. The biggest impediment to learning that I’ve encountered is laziness. Just scream “I don’t understand” and the teacher will do your thinking for you. Why work if you don’t have to?

    As to what I would like them to learn? I think everyone should learn how to deal with unit conversions since these come up in many professions, from nursing to fueling aircraft. Also, simply getting to recognize the significance of units in quantities is something everyone should know.

    Many students will find something interesting somewhere. There are students who loathe mechanics but come alive when current electricity is covered. While their understanding will be superficial at least they’ll learn the proper way to use jumper cables and the reasons why. Other students come alive for thermal physics, others get into nuclear. And, there are usually one or two students planning to be scientists/engineers and who are genuinely interested in learning as much as they can. It isn’t fair, to this last group especially, to have the laziest, most uninterested, students slow the momentum to a crawl everytime they scream “I don’t understand!”

  28. Lightly Seasoned says:

    When kids begin the I-don’t-understand whine, I respond with, “Tell me what you do understand, so I can help you get the rest and not bore you explaining stuff you already know.” Usually they do understand but are just resisting the work, or in explaining it to me they see what they’re missing. Sometimes I have to re-teach, but that’s my job. Once I make them go through the work anyway, the whine becomes pointless.

  29. Physics Teacher says:

    When kids begin the I-don’t-understand whine, I respond with, “Tell me what you do understand, so I can help you get the rest and not bore you explaining stuff you already know.” Usually they do understand but are just resisting the work, or in explaining it to me they see what they’re missing.

    I’ve tried this, but I always get Sgt. Schultz Special: “I know NOTHING, ABSOLUTELY NOTHING!

    I generally get the best results when I ignore them. They then pull out a brain cell, and then another, rub together until warm, and the epiphanies start coming.

    The worst and laziest in the class keep the brains in their backpacks.

  30. Too much rubbing brain cells together, and you could get ignition (like the Kerwood Derby).