This is the fourth in a series of essays I am publishing 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; the second post, here, about the nature of struggle; and the third post, here, about conversations about failure and success that teachers are scared to have.
The author of this latest post is Helen Snodgrass (@Ms_Snodgrass), who is in her second year of teaching AP Biology to some pretty wonderful students at YES Prep North Forest in Houston, Texas, where she is also the science content specialist for the district. She is currently in her fifth year of teaching and says she is enjoying learning and trying new things all the time. She also says she feels grateful to be able to work with so many amazing colleagues both in the AP Biology teacher community and through the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation.
By Helen Snodgrass
When students first walked into my classroom this fall, many of them immediately noticed a large quote on the wall above the whiteboard: “In this class, failure is not an option. It’s a requirement.” “You want us to fail?” they all asked incredulously. While they were skeptical of my intentions at first, by the end of that first class period they were already starting to see how failure could actually be a good thing.
As my students started to learn that first day, I have this quote hanging in my classroom, not because I have a desire to see any of my students fail the class, but as a constant reminder of the powerful learning that occurs when people have to (or are given the opportunity to) struggle through challenging material and fail a few times along the way. In my AP Biology class, this does not mean that I simply sit back and watch students grasp at straws as they tackle really difficult material. What it does mean is carefully selecting tasks for students to work on that might not have one clear answer or only one possible approach and then providing them the space and the skills to work through the challenge and reflect on their process and struggles as they go.
My interest in focusing on this type of productive struggle in my class came from both a strong belief that people learn more when allowed to struggle than when provided all the answers and from realizing that students (and teachers) usually get the opposite message in school. Too often teachers are told that all material must be “scaffolded” for students. While scaffolding can be a very good thing in the classroom, it is sometimes taken to mean that all material must be broken down into such small and simple steps or chunks of information that students are all able to be successful every step of the way. If a significant number of students in a class are not able to immediately find the answer, this is often seen as an indication that the teacher did something wrong either in presenting or breaking down the material.
Students, as a result, often get the message from very early on in their education that if they do not immediately grasp how to solve a problem or get the right answer, they must not be very smart or good at that particular subject. With years of training in this way of thinking, it comes as no surprise that students often respond to challenging work by either immediately asking the teacher for help or by giving up.
My main concern with this approach to teaching and learning is that it simply is not authentic to either the practice of science or just about anything else in life. Most real-world problems are complex and do not come with clear steps to follow to reach a solution. If we are not equipping students with the skills to tackle such problems by supporting them in struggling with challenging work in our classrooms now, then we are simply pushing the issue farther down the road when students will come up against bigger challenges in future classes, in college, or in their careers. Providing our students with the confidence and skills to approach challenging work without an overwhelming fear of failure and the mindset to see the failures they will have as opportunities to learn something is far more important and transferable than any set of facts we could teach them.
After thinking through the messages students had likely heard for years about the meaning of struggle and failure and the importance of those two things for their learning, I decided to focus more this year on shifting their mindsets around struggle and failure and on providing structures to support them in working through difficult content productively.
I wanted them to get the new message that struggle is often actually a good thing for their learning and that their intelligence in science has nothing to do with how quickly they are able to get an answer, but I knew I had to think carefully about how to convey the message and how to support them in developing the skills to tackle more challenging and open-ended tasks. I also knew it would not be easy; kids have been hearing the opposite message for years and should not be expected to entirely shift their mindsets overnight. In fact, it has at times been an uncomfortable struggle for me as a teacher to not only try and get students to embrace this new approach, but to also keep myself from immediately intervening and providing answers when I see students going down the “wrong” path or unsure of what to do.
To start the conversation, students read and discussed an article the first day of class that tells the story of two scientists, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, on a quest to create a radio telescope sensitive enough to study radiation in the Milky Way. The two men faced a long series of what seem like failures as they are unable to get rid of persistent background noise coming from their telescope. After a year without progress, Penzias and Wilson finally reach out to another scientist, Robert Dicke, who instantly realizes that the static they have been hearing is radiation from the beginning of the universe, which he had unsuccessfully been searching for. As the article notes, what the men had considered a failure was in fact just an answer to a different question … one that happened to lead them to win the Nobel Prize in physics. After reading this article, students then discussed how it shifted their views of science and scientists and how it began to shed light on the meaning of the quote above the board.
With the conversation started, we have continually returned to it throughout the fall, especially before, during, and after any labs or activities that I know students will find especially challenging. We have two ongoing lists posted on the wall that we add to before and after this type of work, one a list of “what it means to be smart in biology” and one a list of new skills students have learned and are working on in the class. Both of these lists help students see the value in the challenges they take on in class and help them shift their view of the skills they need to work on to be successful.
Even more important than creating these lists with students and posting them on the wall is being mindful of the implicit messages that I send as a teacher when giving students feedback and praise in class and on their work. If I say I value certain skills, then my feedback needs to reflect that.
Another aspect of shifting my approach has been building students’ group work and process skills so that they develop their abilities to collaborate, try multiple approaches, and reevaluate an approach that is not working. I provide them with opportunities before and after each significant group work activity to reflect on how their skills are growing. As they are working, I have to be constantly mindful of my tendency to step in and redirect groups taking unexpected approaches. When I have done this, however, the most interesting student learning and work products have usually come from those groups I was tempted to redirect who started out on what initially appeared to be an unfruitful path.
While we have all at some point in our lives experienced the discomfort that can come with struggle, we’ve hopefully all also experienced the investment in solving challenging problems, the light bulb moments, and the deep learning that come with struggle as well. I have already seen the value in tilting my classroom more towards one focused on the skills of tackling complex scientific questions.
That of course does not mean that content does not matter, but simply that it does not exist in a vacuum away from the struggles and challenges that helped people discover it. If I want my students to tackle some of the big questions in science (or math, or politics, or history, or anything), they need to be prepared to approach complex and challenging issues and to learn from their failures.
That is why, in my class, failure is not an option. It’s a requirement.
 Lehrer, J. (2009, December 21). Accept Defeat: The Neuroscience of Screwing Up. Wired. Retrieved from http://www.wired.com/2009/12/fail_accept_defeat/all/