Are we helping students get comfortable with change? Part 2

with Bill Tihen, Software Developer at Garaio, Bern, and former teacher and IT director at LAS 

See Part 1 with this same title, in which Bill and I point out the irony that our busy academic schedules, created and driven by our push to cover lots of material efficiently, squeeze out exploration and making mistakes. If our argument is correct – that not having space for exploration may contribute to lower quality learning – well, we have a problem. Maybe we’ve been shooting ourselves in the foot for so long that we don’t even notice the pain we’re causing.

Practice with trial and error, mistakes, and deadends

To address the lack of exposure to setbacks and mistakes that characterize many traditional classrooms, I, Bill, adopted a routine that is both manageable (i.e. not so new to students that it throws them for a serious loop) and likely to create a culture that can start changing their school-created aversion to mistakes.

For example, in a STEAM class, I like to check-in with student groups in the first five to ten minutes of class by asking them about their next steps. I don’t want to tell them what to do next, but I do want to know what they are planning to do next so I can plan whereI might be needed most during class.

Similarly, I like students to finish their self-guided work five to ten minutes before the end of class so they have time to tell me what they discovered and what they are planning to do next class period. I do this by talking with each student work group. We focus on talking about mistakes as learning opportunities, because they are part of the discovery. Mistakes are expected. We learn from them. That message has to get across.

“It’s fine to celebrate success, but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.”

Bill Gates [source]

Students need to stop and reflect regularly in order to adjust their plans. Although this seems obvious, it is crazy rare among students. They have very little practice making their own plans, let alone refining their plans as they work. Like we’ve argued above, students have internalized an expectation that the teacher should provide all the guidance. We shouldn’t wonder too long why students focus on being right and being efficient instead of learning and improving. The way we do school has taught them over and over that right and efficient equals success.

Bill tries to counter this “follower” mindset by encouraging students to identify (and act) on these things: 

  • their most important success and their most important problem;
  • the conditions that are supporting their progress;
  • the conditions that are creating a current problem or a likely future problem; and
  • the things that will help them the most, e.g. what is their plan to make current good work better and to deal with challenges.

I mentioned that as students leave class they share with me their action plan for the next class. In this manner they can arrive at the next class with their plan in mind so they can start without direction from me. 

They tell me what they will do during the next class. This might be about their group dynamics, but it should also touch on the next small step of their work. Since it doesn’t come naturally to students who are used to waiting for the teacher to direct their work, students need practice. 

I set up their practice with three guidelines for an action plan: 

  • it should be an experiment. Students should be able to say what they will do, and for how long – preferably in a short cycle;
  • it should be a small bet (meaning it is no a big deal if it doesn’t work); and
  • It should pass the “live” test and fail the “dead” test.

This last requirement needs a little more explanation. 

The live person test means that whatever their action plan is, it must be something that a live – a real – person can actually do, without superhero powers. It must be something reasonable to do.

At the same time, their plan must fail the dead person test, meaning it must be something that a dead person cannot do! For example, a group of middle schoolers might say that their action plan is to fight less. But that isn’t valid, because it fails the dead person test. While it’s a good idea, dead people don’t fight either, so they need to reframe their action plan into what they will actually do when they disagree.

Do this with a regular rhythm, with a visual checklist that both teachers and students readily see, and the students will get quite good at learning the basics of self-regulation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *