Ever fail spectacularly in front of your students?

Ever fail spectacularly in front of your students? Now that our lectures can be fact-checked in real time, it’s harder to maintain the illusion of omniscience, and sometimes we just plain blow it: the syllabus with the mysterious missing week, the tech-focused class with the colossal tech fail, the carefully crafted exercise that leads students to the exact opposite of what we hoped they’d discover.  These episodes are awkward and embarrassing, but they may have pedagogical benefit.  It turns out that one of the most powerful things we can do to promote long-term learning in our students is to make it safe to make mistakes along the way.  How better to do that than to model failure and resilience ourselves?

You’ll be hearing more from CELT in the coming months about academic tenacity or “grit” and the “growth mindset” that fosters it; this is an area of research led by Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck, whose TED Talk you might enjoy.  If we believe intelligence is a fixed attribute, that we have a certain amount and that’s that, we tend to be discouraged by setbacks and avoid challenge, Dweck’s research shows, as failure seems only to demonstrate lack of intelligence. With a growth mindset, the belief that intelligence can grow over time, failures are simply instructive steps along the way to a larger goal.

What if we could not only share this idea with students but demonstrate it? Surviving the classroom mishap good-naturedly is a beginning, but we might also let them in on our own learning processes and their many blind alleys and dead ends.  Our students, I suspect, believe that we were born knowing all we do about our subjects, that our disciplines’ citation formats are coded in our DNA, and that we produce research by sitting down for two hours of cheerful typing and pressing “publish.”  Opportunities to bring students in on the two-steps-up, one-step-back nature of academic work might be easier in the graduate seminar, but it can be done in other settings as well.  Rather than one giant all-or-nothing assignment, try assigning challenging projects in scaffolded steps, any one of which might involve a useful mini-failure. Or pause mid-lecture to let students in on the errors of your own—or the field’s—prior understanding of a concept, or limitations of current theories.  In one course I still trot out an embarrassing “how I used to teach this concept” handout that students love, that makes me cringe, and that, once we identify the problem, always cements their understanding of the idea.  Here’s a summary article on academic tenacity if you’re interested in reading more.

*  Authored by Dr. Katherine McCarthy.

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