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Teacher: The important conversations we are too ‘scared’ to have


This is the third in a series of essays I will publish in the coming weeks that emanate from a project in which more than 20 biology teachers around the country wrote around the prompt: “What is the value of letting students struggle in class?”  The effort was an attempt to give teachers an avenue to discuss teaching and how they deal with the struggles of their students. You can read about the project here,  the first post here, about how much struggle is too much, and the second post here, about the nature of struggle.

Here’s the third post, by Stephen Traphagen (@MrTraphagen), an AP Biology Teacher and Staff Technology Coach at Rolling Meadows High School in Rolling Meadows, Illinois. He is also a Senior Fellow of the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation, and is interested in ways that educational technology can help students overthrow their adults in schools. He says he does not yet know what he is doing, and is not afraid to admit it.

By Stephen Traphagen

I worry a lot in my teaching practice. Am I doing the right things? Am I helping my students enough? What if I’m helping them too much? What if everyone finds out that I am a fraud because I really am making it up as I go? I’ve come to realize that many of my worries are really about the same thing: the perception that I should have a better idea about what I’m doing than I do.

Students have a parallel problem, and it’s called “mastery.” We use this word to describe when students have learned what we want them to, as far as we can measure it. But what have they really mastered? I’m not ready to hand out black belts in biology to any of my AP students, let alone my ninth-graders. The reality is that there’s very little that a student can “master” in a two-week unit of instruction or a single year course — just like there’s very little great teaching that can be “mastered” in the first few years with students. My students and I have a common problem: we are compelled to declare success because we don’t know how to talk about failure. Until it’s okay for people in schools to fail, and fail publicly, neither teacher nor student is going to risk or reach far enough to do their best work.

All teachers learn the term Zone of Proximal Development, that place of discomfort that allows students to stretch and grow their thinking.”[1] If we give them too much support and structure, we deny students the opportunity to improve. If mastery on a task is possible for every student, are we sure it’s a worthwhile task? I’ve thought a lot about the factors that make students feel motivated and engaged enough to do hard work in schools … as well as about the school structures that stand in their way. I realize now that many of these same factors stand between teachers and their best work. If motivation and engagement for students is tied to that of their teachers, it represents a great opportunity for teachers to model risk-taking and the value of failure in the learning process.

Kirstin Milks is a science teacher in Bloomington, Indiana. A few years ago, she and I started working on identifying the elements of school culture that help students to be motivated and engaged in their science learning. The more we looked at our classrooms and our kids, the more we realized the importance of three factors: safety, agency, and interest. A motivated and engaged student feels safe enough with their peers and their teacher to take public risks necessary to do hard work. Students also need to feel a sense of agency in that they have the power to affect their outcomes through their work — the idea that hard work does pay off. Lastly, the work students do needs to be interesting in some way, either because it’s relevant to their life, or perhaps just because it’s a cool puzzle. The answer-key classroom undermines each of these factors. Failure on easy tasks is particularly shameful, and true risks are rare. These discrete tasks are also unlikely to inspire the kind of interest that will make kids dig in and struggle.

Teachers face all sorts of structures that stand between them and teaching in a way that supports motivation and engagement. The way we interact with administrators and parents, our colleagues, and even our self-reflection are affected by this mastery bias. We are compelled to show evidence that students are making progress towards pre-identified and measurable goals. Recently in my district, the teacher evaluation process was changed to promote a growth mindset. This means that, every year, I meet with my department chair to set professional goals for the year, and at the end of the year, I meet with him again to talk about my success or progress toward my goal. Note that I don’t talk about what I’ve learned — I talk about my measurable progress.

What if I learned that my goal didn’t fit my students and practice? What if I learned something whose value is difficult to measure? My goal completion form doesn’t have a box for this, so I make sure I set goals I can measure and achieve. Not only does this prevent me from writing a goal that stretches my practice (and risks failure), but it sends me back to my classroom with a pre-set agenda, and the pressure to collect data in a measurable direction.

Parents are interested and invested in their students’ success, but they use a variety of measures for this. Some worry most about their child’s grade. Others might be thinking about college readiness or a standardized test. As a teacher getting a concerned call or email, I feel a near-instinctual need to respond, “Yep, we’re doing that in class, and Johnny is making progress.” But what if Johnny isn’t making progress right now? How do we have an honest conversation about this? I would love to be able to say to a parent that their student and I are going to do some foundational work about motivation and engagement, and it’s really going to pay off, but it’s going to take two years. I believe conversations like this would help kids, but I’ve never had one because I’m scared.

The words we use to talk about our work affect the way we think about it. I am lucky to work with thoughtful, committed colleagues … all of whom fill out the same goal boxes and field the same parent emails that I do. When we talk about students and our courses, we often end up talking about the things that are working in our class, or the places our kids are struggling. Noticeably absent are discussions of the things we’re struggling to understand, or the crazy idea we’d like to try, or the questions that underlie multiple aspects of our practice. We don’t talk about stretch, and we don’t talk about failure.

In a culture where we need to claim we’re getting 80 percent of our students to mastery, there isn’t the time or the safety to reach for more, and so we adjust our assignments and our answer keys accordingly. In doing this, we remove the other two components of motivation and engagement: teacher agency in curriculum, and interest in doing cognitively demanding tasks in favor of teaching lessons that feel safer. In this way, we never get the opportunity to practice regular, creative failure. This undercuts teacher creativity and passion for continual learning, and puts a ceiling on quality of teacher practice — exactly the opposite of the goal of all of the well-meaning stakeholders.

Schools that are risky for teacher practice have negative consequences for students. When students are assessed at a trivial level of detail, low levels of effort can be enough to be successful. It’s only in high-risk tasks that effort shines through, but if these aren’t a regular part of classroom work, students never get the opportunity to practice failure. Failure then becomes an unfamiliar and scary thing to be avoided, rather than a culturally-validated part of the learning process.

What does it look like for failure to be valued? There are great examples outside of schools. Supercell Games is a young company that makes some of the most popular mobile games in the world. It is also famous for being a company that celebrates failure. CEO Ilkka Paananen explains why this is so important–and what we can learn from his company:

“We don’t pretend failing is fun — people dedicate their lives to gaming production and sometimes the products get killed — but we get so much from that failure. We analyze and talk about what went well and what didn’t. We pop a bottle of champagne to celebrate what we learned.”[2]

These statements encapsulate the truth that teachers and students need to live in: failure can be painful without being shameful. There is a difference between accepting that failure is part of the design process and accepting failure as an outcome. Confounding the two keeps teachers and students from being what they can be, and undercuts everyone’s sense of motivation and engagement in the process.

If we want to create schools where kids feel safe to fail and take the risks necessary to grow, we need to start by modeling that practice with the way teachers talk to each other, work with their supervisors, and plan their classes. If we make it safe for teachers to fail and learn publicly, we’ve made it safe for them to do their very best work, and also modeled to students the idea that failure can be painful and cause for celebration at the same time. If we replace declarations of mastery with a stance of inquiry and continual improvement, then we remove preconceived ceilings for success. Isn’t that the kind of school we’d want our own kids to go to?


[2] Kelly, S. (2013, November 13). Gaming Empire Supercell: We Pop Champagne Every Time We Fail. Retrieved December 15, 2014, from