Fail Faster

Twice a month (roughly) the instructional coaches in my building get together to trade notes and discuss plans for the future. We’ve been doing a book study on High Impact Instruction by Jim Knight, which I highly recommend to anyone who teaches, not just coaches.

So, we were talking about the learning maps section in Knight’s book and learning targets, which is an innovation we’ve been studying as of late. One of the ladies in our meeting used to teach PE, so she talked about how learning targets come very naturally to her because it’s very obvious what you want the kids to do and it’s very obvious whether or not they have been successful at it. “There are a lot of ways to dribble a ball incorrectly,” she said, “but only one way to do it right, and the difference is obvious.” I thought back to my years as a music student. My music teacher would say something like, “Today we’re going to learn the G flat major scale,” He’d play it once, and we’d sing it back. If we were terrible at it, he’d say, “Almost– but you missed the fourth,” or something like that, and then play it again, and we’d try it again.

The formative feedback is immediate, and ongoing. It’s easy to compare yourself against the model and try again, even more so with some coaching. After the PE teacher models dribbling, for example, she tells the kids, “Go,” and they all start dribbling. She walks around and adjusts posture, hand positions, etc, and then eventually blows the whistle and gives the whole group formative feedback, “You’ve almost got it. This time, try to use the pad of your fingertips, rather than keeping your hand flat.” She blows the whistle again, and it’s time to go again. This is why kids like video games– depending on which way they wiggle their thumbs, they immediately know if they’ve made the right choice, and they can immediately try again.

What would that look like in a language arts or math class? Keep in mind that the definition of learning includes a change in behavior.

Could we boil down our general ed classes so that the kids are given a target/model, a description that is literally as long as a tweet, and then an opportunity to try?

At first, I thought, “Well they’ll fail immediately.”

And then I thought, “Oh.”

If they fail immediately, just as they would the first time they try to dribble a ball, the teacher now has an opportunity to provide formative feedback and then let them try again. Immediately. In a gym class, how often do you try dribbling the ball on the first day that dribbling is introduced? Probably about as much time as there is in the lesson. You spend the majority of the time engaged in the performance of understanding. We learn when we fail, not when we get it right all the time.

Additionally– by giving them a clear target, but then releasing them to try right away, aren’t we giving them the opportunity to invent their own strategy and construct their own learning?

AND FURTHERMORE– by curating this high failure, but low risk, environment– aren’t we automatically putting them into a growth mindset?

What if we taught kids to try, and then try again, and then try some more, and then keep trying? What if we all taught like PE teachers?


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