1703 North Beauregard St.
Alexandria, VA 22311-1714
Tel: 1-800-933-ASCD (2723)
8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. eastern time, Monday through Friday
Local to the D.C. area: 1-703-578-9600, press 2
Toll-free from U.S. and Canada: 1-800-933-ASCD (2723), press 2
All other countries: (International Access Code) + 1-703-578-9600, press 2
Struggling Students Back on Track
November 21, 2013 | Volume 9 | Issue 4
Table of Contents
Three Ways to Foster Productive Failure
Outside of the classroom, many children safely explore failure: babies discover the world through trial and error, and in video games, players fail over and over again in attempts to clear a level—that's what makes the games challenging and fun. In these situations, failures are productive learning opportunities, a chance to reflect on why something didn't work and how to change course. Failure in school is not typically treated the same way.
For too many students, mistakes in the classroom reaffirm a perceived inability. Instead of persevering and learning from their errors, these students shut down. "Hmm, that didn't work. I must not be good at this, and I don't want my friends to think I'm stupid." Game over.
We need to shift our students’ relationship with failure in school. Here are three suggestions for encouraging productive failure in the classroom.
When it comes to perseverance—the willingness to keep trying in the face of obstacles—belief in our ability matters as much as actual ability. We don't try again unless we believe our next attempt has some chance of success. You can try encouraging words ("Come on, I know you can do it"), but why should students believe you? Better to give them evidence of their ability. Start with easier tasks that provide some early successes, what I like to call a running start.
In my work developing Scholastic's math intervention program, MATH 180, I designed confidence-building practice into the program. Students can begin each day playing math games that start with the familiar but quickly level up to offer real challenges. Math games that allow students confidence-building practice should not only engage students but also help them see themselves as genuinely competent in math and push them to the edge of their abilities. And it's important to get to that edge because doing easy stuff gets boring; overcoming obstacles is satisfying. Your brain gives you a chemical reward for stretching it, and you want students to have that feeling. Competence and confidence together is the winning formula.
Yes, we want students to fail, but not all failures should be treated the same way. Consider a learning progression that moves from instruction through practice to mastery. Failure at the beginning of that learning process should be expected and welcome. Students just learning decimals, for instance, who add point five and point eight (0.5 + 0.8) and get point thirteen (0.13), are revealing a potential linguistic and naming confusion that they need to clarify and correct. That's a good mistake that can lead to deeper understanding. Over time, though, through repeated practice, those particular errors should diminish, and students should be error-free when they reach mastery.
Let students know about this shift in expectations, and create a classroom culture to reinforce it. Keep the initial stakes low for students in terms of grades and, importantly, in terms of social status. You don't want them to avoid the task because they fear looking stupid in front of their peers. Praise the student who struggled to succeed and made lots of mistakes before figuring it out. That's good learning. Gradually raise the stakes as students gain increased competence and fluency. You might even let students decide when they want to try an error-free performance that really counts.
Whether it's working our way through the levels of Angry Birds, filling up a loyalty card (10 cups of coffee and the 11th is free), or finishing a pile of ironing, people love making progress. Let students see that their effort and temporary failures are moving them forward. That means you need to provide clear and achievable—but challenging—endpoints. Each level in a video game is an example of a compelling endpoint that actually leads to another challenge. Whether you use badges, a curriculum map, or a table of math facts to master, help students see themselves making progress, hitting milestones, and moving toward completion. It's a lot easier to persevere when you have the end in sight.
When students can see failure as productive, they are less likely to be sidelined by it. Giving them the tools to learn from mistakes frees them to explore ideas and ways of doing things and to seek new challenges.
David Dockterman is a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the chief architect of learning sciences at Scholastic Education.
ASCD Express, Vol. 9, No. 4. Copyright 2013 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.
Subscribe to ASCD Express, our twice-monthly e-mail newsletter, to have practical, actionable strategies and information delivered to your e-mail inbox twice a month.
ASCD respects intellectual property rights and adheres to the laws governing them. Learn more about our permissions policy and submit your request online.