David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Failure is an Option

May 20, 2011: Failure is an Option

I added a new (yet, old) resource to the People Who Get It page:  Ken Bain's What The Best College Teachers Do (Harvard University Press, 2004).  I say "old" because this is a book I discovered and loved so much several years ago that I made sure all my full-time (and even some of my adjunct) faculty got it as part of a conference/in-service. In fact, Charlotte Webb and Provost Carter reference Bain's work during their meeting in It's All Academic. Recently, the book showed up on the inexplicably titled "Top Ten List of Recommended Readings" for 2011 by the National Association of Developmental Education--which then proceeds to list 46 books!

I volunteered to summarize this remarkable book for some colleagues, which has inspired me to give it much deserved space here.  As with most bloggers, I can sometimes come off a bit glib about topics because of the nature of blogs--often short and scant in documentation. I suspect I did so last week in referencing a Science article about science faculty finally realizing the lecture format may be limiting. 

Bain's book, however, puts, I believe, my general opinion about good and not-so-good instructors into a more appropriate context.  While all of Bain's six main points are spot-on, I'd like to use this blog to discuss just his first one: 

Good teachers are cognizant of how people learn. 

A quick aside: despite the ease in which many academics criticize education programs, in those programs they do talk about how people learn and how the brain processes information.  This may not be the case in other content fields that produce college faculty (for the record, throughout my entire M.A. and Ph.D. studies in English, I had no classes on educational theory, getting at best a couple of for-credit courses on teaching freshman level classes that focused more on best and worst practices among graduate teaching assistants). 

The key to how people learn, according to Bain, is the idea of "expectation failure," where students know it is safe to engage in thinking about a subject via their own perspective.  Inevitably, the students may "fail," in terms of trying to fit the reality of the subject with their perspective, but with feedback, they get back on their feet and try again.  This experimentation and experience allows students to construct knowledge, not simply "receive" it.

I recognized this challenge when I first started teaching "Western Civilization" courses to students who came from much different backgrounds than I experienced.  Inevitably, someone would tell me they thought the class would be on the old west in America.  There was no way I could simply start lecturing about medieval England without trying to help the students construct a new reality focused on the loaded terms, "western" and "civilization."

More significant than my feeble attempt to get students to substitute Degas for Vegas is that one of the important trends in education today is the use of simulations:  computerized scenarios where students run a business, develop a product, or provide service for a person, and can fail without fear of actual devastation (to either themselves or the people they virtually work with). 

In so many nursing programs today, students work with computerized mannequins that can allow them to experience scenarios that may not even come up in a clinical rotation.  And if the patient dies in these scenarios, the students can explore the sequence of events, and step back up to the patient, now living again.

Similarly, Bain emphasizes students who get "person" praise versus "task" praise.  Students who are praised as a person (usually in terms of "you're so smart") struggle much more with failure because it feels like they have failed to be "smart" enough, while students praised because of "tasks"  (usually in terms of "you performed that activity well") don't see failure as such a personal thing.

We can see the ramifications of that dichotomy in the way many high-achieving students (filled to the brim with all the information they have received and memorized) simply can't accept failure, responding in ways that range from crying to the teacher to threatening the teacher to contemplating suicide.  Look back at the January 21st blog on Tiger Moms and education to review my skepticism about the kind of education built around "person praise."

"Expectation failure" is at the heart of writing.  There's a reason English instructors push for journal writing and drafts.  We know we won't get it right the first time, and sometimes may have to revise and rewrite over and over.  And even if writers know they have failed drafts, they don't have to share them with the general public.  Much like I don't have to share the various incarnations of this blog discarded on the way to this final product.