Set me up to fail: a falling man in the mist

Set me up to fail

Scientific education is built on a system which fosters success measured against a set of worked out solutions, designed to teach students the research tools available. It misses to train how to handle situations when the tools don’t apply anymore and there is a need to try and fail, giving students the opportunity to learn and to teach themselves how to work on a stage without a finished script.

My most memorable lab exercise from basic physics was a task of investigating the effect of a number of physical properties on the motion of a weight attached to a spring. The range of physical properties to test we could choose for ourselves, as well as the methods to investigate. Provided was a table of various tools and measuring instruments. The exercise had no right answer. And no wrong. The task was to investigate the unknown and convince our peers that the conclusions drawn were reasonable. Sounds familiar? It should – this is the scientific approach in its purest form.

The teachers of this lab checked the solutions as they were, commented and gave suggestions. This is not often the case. Too often the solution to exercises is simply provided to the student for self evaluation, instead of the teacher engaging in each student’s solution and providing individual feedback. Success or failure is set by checking the final outcome, rather than the work done. This is undertandable from the teacher’s perspective. Having to go through 25 versions of three pages worth of Maxwell’s equations to find the specific logical error in each and every one is a gruesome perspective. Many teachers then prefers to hand out the solution, forgetting or ignoring that at the same time they deliver the message: If you do it this way, you will be all right. All down the mainstream. All down the same path. Streamlined. Efficient. Time saving. And killing all innovation.

This kind of teaching fosters perfectionism and insecurity, silence and paralysis faced with the risk of not being able to deliver the expected answer. When studies focus on grades and scores as the main outcome it teaches students to look for supervision, hints, confirmation and the “right” solution. A strategy of less value when faced with real life problems. Science is not about finding the right answers. It is about investigating what we do not know. The strategy for this requires perseverence, persistence, and practice. It comes with crushed expectations but evetually teaches the ability to handle defeat, insecurity and decision making on the basis of incomplete information.

No one who is afraid to fail, look stupid or stick out from the crowd will ever dare try something new. Reshma Saujani recently held a much venerated TED talk. It illustrated how we teach our children to be perfect, not to be brave, and what this can do to a persons spirit, preventing them from pushing outside their comfort zone, attempting a different approach, or trying something new. Reshma describes how some students, instead of showing a partial solution, had gained the habit of deleting it and asking for the answer, simply because they knew their attempt didn’t quite hit the mark.

This kind of behaviour arises from the attitude that success is all that counts and is a dangerous message to bring across. Instead of promoting success we should promote failure and the ability to showcase an attempt for what it is – a step along the way. The lesson we teach students is then not just how to handle the tools, but what to do when the tools don’t help any more. We should set our students up with tasks which have no right solution at all, just as the case is in real life using investigative challenges with open ended questions: By asking open questions and by engaging in investigating activities together with the students instead of imposing the view that there is a script to follow and a right solution to be found. Schools should focus on teaching the method of science, and let the tools be what they are – just tools.

We are measured in all parts of life. That cannot be avoided. But that just makes it much more important that we also teach our students the difference between being worthy of something, and being worth something.

Set me up to fail and I will learn how to succeed.

Anna Leida Mölder
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