Failing Forward

A colleague of mine (@JoshShelleyUNC) shared this NPR story with me a while back on how students see struggle differently in Eastern and Western cultures, and I have tried to use it before in my classroom to send a message to my students: struggling is not an indicator that you are dumb. I loved the story, and I think it made a brief impact on the students’ thinking, but it wasn’t very sticky. I couldn’t refer back to it easily, and it just wasn’t captivating to them. I listen to NPR a lot, but it didn’t really move the needle with students who think life should be about their entertainment.

I just finished reading an essay by Keith Robinson, a teacher from Newark, NJ who was recently awarded a Fishman Prize from the New Teacher Project, which rewards “superlative classroom practice.” He wrote an essay titled “Gettin’ Messi: How Mistakes Make Mathematicians.” (find it here, starting on page 21).

He discusses how he introduces students to Lionel Messi, the world’s greatest soccer player, and after wowing them with his skills, he breaks down their fixed intelligence mindset by showing them video of how hard he practices. He shows the breathtakingly skilled player taking free kick after free kick and missing many of them. The essay goes on to discuss how from that day forward, Messi is the class icon for persistence and a growth mindset. He discusses how he creates a place where mistakes are valued at a higher level than correct answers because of the potential growth involved. For the full perspective, read it yourself. I love his idea for a couple reasons: 1) I’m a Messi fan (have a jersey and all), 2) its STICKY!

Then I reflect on my classroom. What have I done to engage my students in their mistakes in a positive way? Well, I have a sign on my wall that says Fail Forward. I have said a few times this year that students’ mistakes are more important to me than the right answers. I had a couple assignments earlier in the year where I had them look at intentionally incorrect work in order to find the mistake and make recommendations on how to improve.

I have done a little bit, but I know I’m still a long way away when I do a TI Nspire quick poll with my class and have some students asking “Who put _____?!” They’re interested, but it’s clear they have no interest in helping that person out. In a culture where students bond by making fun of each other, I see an uphill battle.

This element of class culture is especially critical in my classroom. I teach mostly junior and senior math classes where I have a HUGE range of ability levels. My pre-calculus classes are all labeled honors, but since there are no “regular” sections, I have students who have been passed through the algebras and geometry without much comprehension and I have other students who are legitimately deserving of the honors title. In that classroom, the practice of students comparing themselves to one another can be devastating if students see their ability something they have no control over. Students giving up becomes much more common, and there is no reason to push themselves.

Since I believe the goal of the education is creating thinkers, it is critical to have these students be self-motivated. It is impossible if they see their mistakes as defining their ability. If they truly believe that their efforts can make them better, they are empowered to face head on the many obstacles they face daily. The challenge now is to show them a model of humility and working to improve on mistakes by addressing this ASAP once we get back from fall break.


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