Archive for March, 2011

Freedom to fail

Thursday, March 31st, 2011

The previous entry on this blog was about failure not being an option — and I subscribe to that. Failure in an ultimate sense is something we should never choose for ourselves: the universe or some other person may well cause us to fail but we should not elect to fail in a final sense. Nevertheless, failure, and the freedom to fail in the short run without disastrous long-term consequences, is essential to learning. I have taught students with a whole range of abilities and inclinations over the years; there have been some who have been afraid to venture on anything, lest they fail to complete it to some arbitrary standard of perfection. Others tear into the subject with giddy abandon, making mistakes freely and without compunction. Of the two groups, it is invariably the latter that gets the job done. The students in the former group are frozen by fear or reverence for some external standard of excellence or perfection, and they really cannot or will not transcend that fear.

It may seem odd that, while I consider education to be one of the more important activities one can engage in throughout life, it’s actually the model of the game that speaks most directly to what’s going on here. The Dutch historian Johan Huizinga, in a marvelous little book called Homo Ludens, explores the notion of game and gaming in historical cultures. He identifies a number of salient features — but chief among them are two facts: first, that the universe of the game is somehow set apart, a kind of sacred precinct, and, second, that what goes on there does not effectively leave that arena. I think the same can be said of education — and, interestingly, the idea of education as a game is of long standing: the Roman word that most commonly was applied to the school was ludus, which is also the most common word for game or play.

Who doesn’t know at least one student who loves to play games, and who may be remarkably expert in them, but still has difficulty engaging the subjects he or she is nominally studying seriously? In my experience, it’s more the norm than the exception. I’ve heard people decry that fact as a sign of the sorry state into which the world has fallen — but I don’t think that’s all, or even most, of the picture. One of the things that sets games apart from other learning activities is that in a game, one is encouraged, or even required, to try things, in the relative certainty that, at first at least, one is going to make an awful mess of most of them. That’s okay. You get to do it again, and again, and again, if need be.

Within the bounds of the game, one is free to fail. Even there, one should not choose to fail: doing that subverts the game as nothing else ever could. But even if one is trying to win, failure comes easily and frequently, but without serious penalty. The consequence, though, is that students learn quickly enough how not to fail. The idea that one must get everything right the first time is nonsense. The creeping fear that one needs to score 100 on every quiz is nonsense. Even the belief that the highest grade signifies the best education is nonsense. Sure, I have had some students who got extraordinarily high grades and were very engaged with the material; I have had some students who were completely disengaged and got miserable scores. But those are the easy cases, and they are relatively few. The mixed cases are interesting and hard. I’ve had a few who operated the system in order to get good scores, but never really closed with the material. They walked away with a grade — though usually not the best grade — and little else. I wish it were possible to prevent tweaking the system this way, but it often is not. In the end, though, like the student at UCLA Christe recounted in the previous post, they achieved a real failure because they chose it: they sacrificed the substance of their education in order to win a favorable report on the education. It’s a bad trade — yet another instance of the means becoming autonomous.

I have also had other students — probably more of them than in any of the other groups — who thrashed about, and had real difficulty with the material, but kept bashing at it, and wound up making real strides, and in a meaningful sense winning the battle. Christe talked about how a baby learning to walk is taught by the unforgiving nature of gravity. That’s true enough. Gravity is exacting: its rules never waver, and so it may be unforgiving in that regard. It’s also very forgiving in another sense, however. Falling once or even a thousand times doesn’t keep you down or make you more likely to fall the next time. Every time you fall, assuming you haven’t injured yourself critically, you are free to get up again and keep on trying. And perhaps you have learned something this time. If not, give it another go.

Children learning to speak succeed with such amazing speed not in spite of but because of their abundant mistakes. They are forming concepts about the language, and testing and refining them by playing with it so recklessly. A child who learns that “I walked” is a way of putting “I walk” into the past will quite reasonably assume that “I runned” is a way of putting “I run” into the past. This may be local and small-scale setback when it comes to identifying the right verb form for the task: it most definitely is not failure in a larger sense. It’s a triumph. Sure, it’s incorrect English. It is, nevertheless, the vindication of that child’s language-forming capacity, and the ability to abstract general principles from specific instances. He or she will eventually learn about strong verbs. But such engagement with what one wants to say, and such fearlessness in expressing it, is rocket fuel for the mind. The child learns to speak the way a devoted gamer learns a game — through immersion and unquestioning involvement, untainted by the slightest fear of the failure that invariably, repeatedly attends the enterprise.

When I first started teaching Greek I and II online about fifteen years ago, I came up with what seemed to me a rather innovative plan for the final for the course. Over the years since I haven’t altered it much, because of all the things I’ve ever done as a teacher, it seems to have been one of the most successful. Though in recent years Sarah Miller Esposito has taken Greek I and II over from me, I believe that she’s still doing roughly the same thing, too. I set the final up as a huge, exhaustive survey of virtually everthing covered in the course — especially the mechanical things. All the declensions, all the conjugations, all the pronoun forms, and so on, became part of that final exam. It took many hours to complete. I eventually even gave up having other exams throughout the year. Everything (in terms of grade) could hang from the final.

Everything for a year depending on a final? For a high school student? This sounds like a nightmare. I’ve had parents balk and complain — but seldom students: not when they’ve been through it and seen the results. Here’s the trick: the student was allowed to take that exam throughout the summer, as many times as he or she wanted. It could be taken with the book in the lap, with an answer sheet propped up next to the computer; students could discuss the contents with one another, or ask me for answers (though they seldom needed to: I put the number of the relevant section in the book next to each question). The results of each pass could be reviewed, and each section could be retaken as many times as desired. The only requirement was this — the last time any given section of the exam (I think there are eighteen sections, some of them worth several hundred points each) was taken, it had to be taken under exam conditions: closed book, with no outside sources. The final version had to come in by Sept. 1. Students were free to complete it at any point prior: most of them didn’t. Why should they? They were playing the game, and improving their scores. They actually rather liked it. Especially after I was able to get these exam segments running under the Moodle, so that scoring was instantaneous and painless (frankly there’s little that’s as excruciating for a teacher to grade by hand as accented polytonic Greek), they did it a lot. They’d take each segment four, five, perhaps even ten times.

The results of this were, from a statistical point of view, probably ridiculous. It tended to produce a spread of scores ranging from a low of about 98.3 to a high of about 99.9. Nobody left without an A. “What kind of grade inflation is this?” one might ask. But the simple (and exhilarating) fact was that they all came back to class in the fall ready to perform like A students. They had the material down cold — and they hadn’t forgotten it all over the summer either. This is not just my own assessment: they went on to win national competitions, and to gain admission to some of the most prestigious universities in the country — where at least some of them tested into upper division classics courses right away. If that’s grade inflation, so be it. I like to think rather that it’s education inflation. We could use a little more of that. I don’t really take credit for it myself — it’s not that I was such a brilliant teacher. I’m not even primarily a Hellenist — I’m a Latinist. But I credit the fact that they became engaged with it as if with a game.

We live in a society with a remarkably strong gaming culture; but most historical societies have had the same thing. We have surviving games from Egypt and Greece and Rome; chess comes from ancient India and Persia, and go (probably the only game to match chess for complexity from simplicity) from ancient China and Japan. We have ancient African games, and ancient Native American games. Today the videogame industry is a multibillion dollar affair. Board games, card games, sporting equipment, and every other form of game equipment is marketed and consumed with a rare zeal. These products find buyers even in a downturn economy, because they appeal to something very fundamental about who we are. Even while the educational establishment seems to be ever more involved in protecting the fragile ego and self-image of the learner, our games don’t tell us pretty lies. They don’t tell us that we’ll win every time. They tell us we’ll fail and have to keep trying if we want to win. I really think that people savor that honesty, and that the lesson to be learned from it is enormously significant.

I know that there are a lot of things that people have had to say against games, and certainly an undue or inappropriate preoccupation with them may not be a good thing. Nevertheless, they are genuine part of our God-given nature, and they form, I would argue, one of our most robust models for learning. In games we are free to fail: and that freedom fosters the ability to learn, which is ultimately the legitimate freedom to win. If we can extract any lesson from our games, and perhaps apply it more broadly to the sphere of learning, I think we all will benefit.

Failure is not an option

Monday, March 21st, 2011

When I taught my first class as a graduate assistant at UCLA, one of the students asked whether my Western Civilization section was a “Mickey Mouse” course. What he meant was, “Is this a course with a guaranteed A if I show up and do the minimal work assigned, or will I run the risk that the work I do won’t be good enough for an A?” I said no, it wasn’t a Mickey Mouse course; the history of the Western World was complex and it would take work. I would not guarantee his grade.

He didn’t show up at our next meeting and the enrolled student printout the next week confirmed that he had dropped the class. He couldn’t risk the possibility of failure (which apparently was determined by having a less than 4.0 GPA), and so he missed the opportunity to learn why the reforms of Diocletian changed the economy of the Roman Empire and influenced the rise of monasteries, or how the stirrup made the feudal system possible, or how the academic interests of Charlemagne led to the rise of universities and the very institution he was supposed to be part of.  He chose to fail to get an education rather than fail to get an A grade.

When I taught my first chemistry course online, I was blessed with an enthusiastic bunch of brilliant students who tackled the rigorous textbook and beat it into submission — except for one student we’ll call Joe. Joe lacked the science and math background that would have made the course easier, and he had a learning disability that made reading anything, but especially any kind of formulae, a real trial.  By the middle of the fall semester, it was clear that Joe was in serious trouble. His mother discussed the possibility of dropping the course, but I thought I could teach any willing student anything, so I offered extra help. Joe and I agreed to meet an hour early before the rest of the class and work through the problematic material. When I realized the extent of Joe’s problems, we backed up and started over. He continued to attend the regular online sessions with the rest of the class, but I excused him from keeping up with the homework and quiz assignments while we tried to establish a foundation he could really build on.

At the end of the academic year, the rest of the class had finished the twenty-two chapters of the text. Joe had finished four.

But he really knew those four chapters. He could answer any question and do any problem from them, with more facility and conviction than some of the students who had seemingly breezed through the material months earlier. I reluctantly entered a failing grade on his report, but wrote his parents that I didn’t think the grade reflected Joe’s real accomplishments that year. He had managed to learn some chemistry. What’s more, I’d had a salutary lesson in perseverance.

What I hadn’t realized was that my lesson wasn’t over. Joe didn’t accept his failing grade as the final word. Three years later, out of the blue, I got a letter from Joe’s mother. Her son, fired with the discovery that he could actually learn chemistry given enough time, and the realization that he actually liked chemistry, had gotten a job working part time so that he could pay a chemistry student from the local college to tutor him. He applied the same dogged determination he had shown in our extra morning sessions to his self-study and with the help of his tutor, slogged his way though the rest of our text. Kindly note that no one was giving him a grade for this work. But when he was done with his self-study, he took a community college chemistry course and passed it.

Like so many things, failure is a matter of perception. In his own estimation, Joe hadn’t failed — despite the F on his transcript. Many students would have given up early in the semester — certainly before the last withdrawal date — rather than risk a failing grade. For Joe, the grade was not a locked gate blocking his passage; it was merely measure of how far he still had to go. The educational reality was that he was four chapters further than he had been at the beginning of the year. He took heart from the fact that he was making progress, and kept going.

Our dependence on grades frustrates the educational progress of many otherwise willing students. They take easy courses where they are confident they can do well, rather than risk lowering their grade point average by taking the course that will actually challenge them to grow intellectually. In some cases, teachers even enable the process by giving “consolation” grades rather than risking damaging the fragile self-esteem of students — but everyone, even the students, realizes that they didn’t actually earn the report. We’ve created a schizoid educational system, where even though we know that recorded grades at best inadequately reflect a student’s real accomplishments, and, at worst, distort them, we still base academic advancement and even financial rewards on those abstractions for the sake of convenience. The result is that students pursue grades, rather than education.

Real education requires discipline and serious reflection, but it also requires taking risks, making mistakes, and learning from those mistakes. I would venture that making mistakes and recovering from them is not merely a normal part of learning, but an essential of classical Christian education. We do our students an enormous disservice by making them afraid to fail to “get it right” the first time. We teach them to back down, rather than to buckle down and tackle a new topic with gumption.

Gravity is an uncompromising and unforgiving teacher. Lose your balance, and you will fall.  But every child learns to walk, sooner or later, despite many tumbles along the way. We expect toddlers to fall, and we try to minimize the damage by removing sharp edges and putting down carpets. But we let them fall: how else will they learn to recognize imbalance and practice the motor skills to correct it? We teach them such tumbles should not be a reason to give up learning to walk; we laugh, encourage them to get up, and try again. Ultimately, every healthy child learns to walk, and we really don’t care how many tumbles they took, or how long it took. Parents may report the accomplishment with glee to friends and grandparents, but when was the last time anyone asked how old you were when you learned to walk? The important thing is that you didn’t give up: you chose not to fail, you are walking now, and that gives you the ability to do things you wouldn’t otherwise be able to do as easily.

The phrase “failure is not an option” comes from the movie Apollo 13. The script writers put it in the mouth of Gene Kranz, the NASA Flight Control director at the time. He never actually said those words, but they reflected a firm conviction evidenced by Mission Control that the team would not consider failure among the possible outcomes of their efforts. They could not choose to fail if none of the other options worked — failure was simply not on the list. Of course, failure was still a possibility, but it wasn’t a choice. Their goal was to find a solution that would bring the astronauts home safely, and if none of the proposed options worked, to propose something else that might, and keep working until they succeeded.

Our goal as Christian parents is to educate our children to know God and His creation better, to love all the people He has created, and to serve Him by using the talents He has given them to show His love in that world. To accomplish that, our children need to grow intellectually and spiritually. They need to tackle many subjects, push the limits, and be willing to reveal their ignorance by asking questions. If we are doing an effective job of classical education, we will teach them how to read so closely and carefully that they recognize when things don’t make sense, and be eager to find out why.

Questioning the material won’t be an indication of students’ inability to figure it out for themselves, but a witness to their deep engagement with the content of the text, whether it is making sense of a Latin translation exercise, following a geometrical proof to conclusion, imagining the ramifications of relativity theory, or understanding how the concept of nature influences the behavior of Hawthorne’s characters. When failure is not an option, we understand that students have committed to stay the course, even when they make slow progress by some arbitrary standard, or have to take a detour to pick up necessary skills. Students are freed to make the mistakes they need to make to learn, grow, and ultimately succeed without the prejudice of failed expectations, and we are free to recognize the true achievements in their education, whether or not that is reflected by their current grade level or GPA.