Teachers—Do we let em fail?

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If at first you don’t fail, then fail, fail again

The discussion around failure in education is often a contentious one. What is a teacher to do when a student fails to meet expectations? Educators have strong feelings about whether failing students sends a message and builds character, or sets them up for a vicious cycle of continued failure.

 

Two Sides to Failure

On the one hand, teachers cannot give constant extensions and extra credit, lest students come to expect these exceptions always be made. As noted in Edutopia’s When Helping Hurts, doing so may “raise a risk-averse generation whose members lack resilience and the crucial ability to rebound from failure.” The argument is that it’s enabling to cut students slack if they perform poorly—they have to work hard and rebound from failure as practice for the real world.

On the other side of the argument, many argue that experiencing failure does not prepare students for life after school. According to the Washington Post’s Jay Mathews:

There is virtually no research or evidence to suggest that higher incidents of failure in school produce higher levels of responsibility, greater academic achievement in college, or a higher likelihood of success in meeting the demands of adult life.

Letting students sink doesn’t teach them to swim

In fact, educator Valerie Strauss shows research findings indicate that experiencing failure can become a vicious cycle for students:

We may want kids to rebound from failure, but that doesn’t mean it’s usually going to happen…  studies find that when kids fail, they tend to construct an image of themselves as incompetent and even helpless, which leads to more failure.

Do kids really learn from failure? Why conventional wisdom may be wrong

Teachers on this side of the argument say that students who are doing poorly in school need support, not a failing grade.

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Teachers—How do we be both firm and flexible?

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No talking without raising your hand.

It’s a common classroom rule. But do teachers expect it to be followed always, every time, under all conditions? Really?

What about the times when that one student who never participates calls out an answer? Do we risk not hearing from her after insisting on reminding her to raise her hand?

Or during that magical moment when a class discussion gets going beautifully and you can step back and watch students discuss and debate? Do we stifle the discussion by stopping each student and pointing to the “no calling out” reminder on the board?

Teachers need to be firm in enforcing their expectations. But we also need to be flexible when the situation calls for it. How do we do both? Strike a balance!

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Teachers—Help students balance class participation

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All teachers are aware of the problem of class participation. During whole-class discussions, some students are eager and participate frequently and excitedly—

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…whereas others avoid joining in unless called on and try to escape even then—

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Students with ASD are like all students who might fall into either of these categories, though the social challenges they may face may make things more difficult. Some kids may “over-share” because they don’t pick up on subtle social cues indicating to wrap up their thought. Others may shy away from contributing due to the overwhelming pace of other students’ conversation.

But this is not an issue just for students with autism. Neurotypical teachers and students can benefit from considering the balance involved in class participation. And teachers of inclusive classrooms in particular can help to support all students have a space to participate.

Jennifer Gonzalez has a terrific post on her blog, Cult of Pedagogy, about what she calls “fisheye teaching,” the trap teachers fall into during class discussions in which,

some students appear “larger” than others. They take up more energy and grab more of our attention, making the others fade into the periphery

This is the phenomenon of a teacher’s perception of what feels like a terrific class discussion, that in reality was dominated by only a few thoughtful, focused, on topic students. Those eager kiddos can cloud our view and prevent us from seeing the many students who did not participate.

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Gonzalez offers some great suggestions of “ways to balance things out,” getting the talkers to listen and the quiet ones to speak. In addition to these strategies, teachers can explicitly explore the balance of sharing your thoughts and holding your thoughts with the whole class. (See more on this Balance Challenge.) Here’s how:

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Teacher Balance—Support and Independence

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hands upA student raises her hand.
Teachers: What do you do?

Do you run over to help immediately, carefully taking time to walk her through every part of what she’s working on?

Or do you tell her, “No questions – try it yourself first”?

As with most questions, the best and most accurate answer is: it depends.

Teachers want to provide support to students when they’re confused, but they also want to encourage independence so they develop skills to problem solve themselves. How does one do both? First let’s look at the dangers of the extremes—if you only do one or the other:

Only Providing Support

It’s crucial to provide support for students, especially when they are learning new content, or when a particular student is struggling.

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Providing Support

So should you run over to help students at the first sign of a question? Not necessarily…

If a teacher provides too much support, students can become reliant on them. They can develop a dependency on your help and not develop the skills to tackle challenging work on their own.

For this reason, you may want to be careful about situations like this:

  • If you help students every single time they ask for it – they may never learn to problem-solve
  • If you give third, and fourth… and fifth chances when not handing in homework – they may never learn to take responsibility
  • If you swoop in at the first sign of disagreement and solve the group’s problem – they may never learn to resolve peer conflicts

To avoid enabling students, teachers shouldn’t solve their every problem in every instance. Sometimes you need to foster independence. Let’s look at this more closely.

Only Encouraging Independence

So we’ve learned it’s crucial to encourage students to be independent. Have we found the answer to the hand-raising problem: just let them figure it out themselves? Not so fast.

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Encouraging Independence

If you expect too much independence—and don’t provide support to achieve it—students don’t learn how to become independent. They can flounder in their confusion or frustration, not knowing where to start or what to do next.

So you can’t always expect students to figure our problems on their own. Think twice about things like this:

  • If you refuse to answer questions – students won’t know you’re there to help them when they’re genuinely stuck
  • If you give directions once and only once – you leave out students who need more time to process, and your directions just may not have been clear in the first place!
  • If you expect students to organize everything on their own – they lack models of essay outlines and notebook sections to know what organization can even look like

So we don’t just throw students into the deep end of the pool, as they may flail—and fail—without appropriate support. Let’s now look at a balanced approach.

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