Saturday, July 20, 2013

Non-Produtive Failure is Not An Option

The statement "failure is not an option" is one that comes up often in inclusive education.  One reads about presuming competence, intervention strategies, front-loading, scaffolding techniques, strategy instruction, supports, assistive technologies.  All of these things point to the goal of learning success. 

This morning, I came across a great post on the Science Behind How We Learn New Skills.  One quote in particular resonated with me in the middle of a time when the noise is getting louder and louder about educational transformation and change:
"We’ve heard a lot lately about the benefits of experiencing and overcoming failure. One way to get these benefits is to set things up so that you’re sure to fail—by tackling a difficult problem without any instruction or assistance. Manu Kapur, a researcher at the Learning Sciences Lab at the National Institute of Education of Singapore, has reported (in the Journal of the Learning Sciences) that people who try solving math problems in this way don’t come up with the right answer—but they do generate a lot of ideas about the nature of the problems and about what potential solutions would look like, leading them to perform better on such problems in the future. Kapur calls this “productive failure,” and you can implement it in your own learning by allowing yourself to struggle with a problem for a while before seeking help or information."
It seems a bit counterproductive sometimes. Our accountability measures in education are set up in a way that often forces us to think about the product rather than the process and yet here is a emerging research that demonstrates that going through the process and never getting to the product can have positive impacts on overall learning of concepts. 

But can "failure is not an option" also send messages tied to perfection rather than progress?  Can it lead to thinking in terms of "streaming" or remediating rather than compensating?  Perhaps it depends which way we see failure...

In the article Failure is Not An Option: Collecting, Reviewing and Acting on Evidence for Using Technology to Enhance Academic Performance Dave Edyburn introduces the concept of "naked independence".  He states that "Education places a premium on knowledge that is contained in one's head. Performance that is completed without the aid of external devises and resources is prized over performance that is dependent on tools or resources."  Edyburn argues that this approach devalues the performance of those who rely on "cognitive tools" to get to solutions. 

He outlines a scenario where a student is having difficulty completing algebra problems in math class.  The "intervention" used to allow the student to use the WebMath Website when he is completing his work.  The task switches from a paper and pencil task with mathematical steps to an inputting information in to a website and recording the answer task.  Does it require the same mathematical understanding to complete the assignment this way?  Is it 'cheating'?  Is it fair? 

Perhaps the more pressing might be is it better to have a student achieving significantly below what others are achieving around him without supports or to have a student be able to come up with the answers with supports?  Do we create thinking patterns that are reflective of the graphic above that result in students that have no sense of efficacy of themselves as learners if we leave them to their "naked independence" and have them either failing over and over again or removed to a life skills or remediated program?  In the end, if a student is unable to do something with "naked independence" is it better for them to not be able to do it at all or to be able to do it with the help of a "cognitive tool"? 

There are many unanswered questions but the bottom line is that we now have some of the technologies that would allow students to complete the tasks that cannot do without tools.  Do we deny them the use of these because of our beliefs about fairness or cheating?  Is it representative of the world we are preparing them for to assess them on being able to complete tasks with naked independence?  Is there something in all of this that will facilitate in ourselves and our students a growth mindset?  

I am down to two more terms before I finish my Masters.  This fall is an internship and in the spring we will be working on our Capstone.  Somewhere in the middle of these thoughts sits some of what I would still like to explore before this is done...  

I do not fail.
I succeed in finding out
what does not work.

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