Thursday, September 11, 2014

What lessons can be learned from student failure?

(I wrote the following comments for a school board discussion of the high rates of student failure at our high school.)

To understand failure, we have to define what we mean by learning. I’d like to pull back and put learning and failure in a context that may be unfamiliar to you, but bear with me.

If we agree for the moment that learning is a consequence of experience, then we can also see that learning is effortless. In other words, the brain turns on, therefore the brain learns. It doesn’t turn off because teaching has stopped, or because content is difficult. It is simply not learning that which is being taught, or that which is being purposefully “learned.”

“We are learning all the time, so anything we engage in we learn about, provided we are interested and not confused. Anyone reading is learning about reading. Anyone reading an historical book is learning about history. Anyone engaged in a task involving mathematics, geography, astronomy, carpentry or cookery is learning about those things. How much they learn and what exactly they learn depends on whom they are doing those things with and their perception of themselves and of what they are learning about. They are learning through experience.” (Frank Smith, The Book of Learning and Forgetting)

When students “fail,” learning has not has simply gone wrong. What a struggling student is learning is that learning is a struggle. Smith again:

“What is not recognized [in traditional education] is that learning is never absent, and that students who fail to learn what teachers are expected to teach them are nevertheless learning. They learn that they cannot do what is being taught.”

Or put another way,

“If there is no interest or comprehension learning may still take place but with more difficulty and what is also inevitably learned is that the task or subject matter is uninteresting, incomprehensible and not something anyone would normally do.”

The common red flags for learning that has “gone wrong” is confusion, anxiety and boredom.
"Because of the way they are trained and expected to teach, teachers often believe that it is possible for students to learn something even though the students don't understand it or aren't interested in it--provided they try hard enough, of course.  But we can only learn from activities that are interesting and comprehensible to us; in other words, activities that are satisfying. If this is not the case, only inefficient rote-learning, or memorization, is available to us and forgetting is inevitable." 

But with interest comes learning.

“Learning is far more likely with an interested student and demands that teachers promote interest are less liable to be reduced to fragmented, decontextualized and testable units than lists of specific knowledge and skills.”

This is just a taste of a different way of thinking about learning. If we believe all children are able to learn, and we create a system based on that belief, then we would not see failure. We wouldn’t see it as a result of assessments and testing; and the children in our schools wouldn’t have the knowledge of themselves as “failures.” We would see the ongoing process of our children, growing and developing, engaging with the world and with knowledge, all on an equal footing despite their differences.  

I once said to an administrator, “There can be a system of education that is based on student strengths.” She responded, “If we do that, how would we find their weaknesses?

This question reveals the administrator’s philosophy and approach to education. It is based on fear. We all feel fear with respect to our students, and our children. If they don’t learn what we tell them to learn, no matter how difficult,

  • They won’t be able to support themselves.
  • They won’t have any “work ethic.”
  • They’ll have to rely on public assistance.
  • They won’t be able to solve the world’s problems.

We need to turn the fear off, for good. I submit that any approach to education that is based on fear or in response to fear be summarily discarded. It’s not doing kids any good; it’s not doing society any good. Because the result of having kids learn stuff they do not value,  they don’t feel connected to, that they don’t comprehend, is that the learning, as explained above, will go wrong. All because adults are afraid of the consequences of them not learning it. So we are in our own way.

I have heard all the stories about teacher-wizards who, when “forcing” kids to learn such arcane subjects as Shakespeare, were able to light a candle in their students’ imaginations. In the end, those children loved the Bard, their whole life long.

My question is, do you really think that is true of all kids in all lessons they are unwilling to learn?

And what is lost when we redirect them away from the interests and passions they may already have?

Public schools are great bastions of something called deficit thinking, in the sense of kids being there to be filled with the knowledge and skills that they lack. My theory is that learning goes better and that more is learned when we build on strengths.

Deficit thinking, however, is also a phrase that has been used since the 60s to define a way of thinking about race and class in school. We are nearly monochromatic in our schools here in Central Maine, but we certainly have class distinctions and lots of poverty in our area.

Richard Valencia, author of Dismantling Contemporary Deficit Thinking, offers this definition:

“Deficit thinking, an endogenous* theory, “blames the victim” for school failure rather than examining how schools are structured to prevent poor students and students of color from learning.”

*Endogenous: having an internal cause or origin.

I am still working on coming to a deeper understanding of deficit thinking.  It is simple enough, however, to be aware that if some students find the learning experiences we provide “more difficult,” then, according to Frank Smith above, it is learning that has gone wrong. We talk often about our poor kids and what they need:

"The dominant theoretical explanation for disproportionate school failure of the poor and the minority was “accumulated environmental deficit”—that is, students entered school with a build-up of handicaps incurred in early formative years that would be irreversible unless significant action was taken when children were very young…. If, however, intervention begins early enough the child can recover from the lack of intellectual stimulation at home and the dearth of language…. The compensation for the deficits that are hypothesized to have occurred before a child enters school results in the leveling of the playing field giving everyone an equal chance at a desirable future."  --  Valencia

If there is a cultural difference between some poor students and better-off ones, is it assumed they have to leave their culture in order to succeed? If some students have experienced financial hardship and stress, is it assumed that nothing was produced in that deprived home that gave the child something worth developing?

A strengths-based learning environment “levels the playing field” in such a way that neither identity nor culture is lost.

When I first started exploring the idea of deficit thinking, I had no idea that it’s most notable detractor (Richard Valencia) had the same solution to public education as I do...but it does make sense! I conclude with his words on what we need to do to fix deficit thinking, put an end to student failure, and give all students the support needed for success:

“...we offer an alternative to deficit thinking in education, namely “democratic education.” We warn that unless schooling can meet the requirements of democratic education , deficit thinking will continue to exist and if anything, grow. We propose four requirements of democratic education: (a) providing that kind of knowledge that will enable every student to engage equally in an informed debate on every generally recognized important social and personal issue; (b) guaranteeing everyone equally the particular rights of freedom of expression (which includes the right to express unpopular political beliefs , and to disagree with constituted authority, including the teacher), specified rights of privacy, due process that includes presumption of innocence, trial by independent tribunal, and protection from cruel and unusual punishment, and freedom of movement; (c) providing everyone the opportunity and the skill to participate with equal power in all the decisions that affect one’s life; (d) providing everyone equal encouragement in all of society’s legitimate activities. Each of these four features of democratic education (knowledge; rights; participation; encouragement ) has specific relevance to different aspects of deficit thinking, which we examine closely."

Frank Smith was a reporter, editor, and novelist before beginning his formal research into language, thinking, and learning. He earned his Ph.D. from Harvard and has been a professor at schools in Canada and South Africa. He has published twenty-one books and many articles on topics central to education.

Richard R. Valencia is Professor of Educational Psychology and Faculty Associate of the Center for Mexican American Studies at The University of Texas , Austin.

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