This week we wanted to talk about expectation and its power in education. This idea started, in part, from a story NPR’s podcast Invisibilia ran about expectations. The episode makes a compelling case for how blind people might actually be able to see if given the right set of expectations. (Listen here if you’re interested http://www.npr.org/programs/invisibilia/378577902/how-to-become-batman). The story got us thinking about how expectation plays a role in teaching and science education.
We have been told many times that we “can’t” run the programs we describe with middle and high school students. Prospective teachers tell us that “it would be too far above their heads” or “too challenging for them to complete”. Other teachers who do research with high school seniors, claim there is so much background information needed to do these projects it takes them weeks to prepare students. There is an expectation in education that 7th-12th grade students cannot do graduate style or independent research projects. That their lack of prerequisite skills would lead their experiments to failure and a waste of class time. This is wrong.
To be clear we aren’t claiming that every middle school science class can produce projects worthy of publication in Nature. Rather, that grade school students are able to come up with original project ideas, creative ways to test their hypotheses, and think critically about their data. Will they run in to roadblocks and fail in some of their attempted experiments? Almost certainly, but so do graduate students and even the most renowned scientists. Are we properly preparing out pupils if we expect them to “pass” all of their worksheets and assignments, while most scientific discoveries leave a string of null hypotheses in their wake? Does our fear of failure hold us back from challenging students learn difficult topics?
I know first hand that just because 8th graders haven’t taken college statistics to learn about T-Tests, does not mean they can’t look at two averages and discuss the relevance of the variation comprising each average to the difference between the two. Without a doubt, these students chased their experimental ideas to dead ends that a college student would have had the foresight to avoid. The crucial part is that these dead ends did not become FAILURES, but instead points of discussion on: why might things not have worked out, what could they do differently next time, and how can we still answer the question we set out to. If success in the only acceptable outcome for our students, then we are limiting ourselves as educators in the expectations we can hold them too.
Given the right framework, students can learn just as much from a failed attempt at something than a successful one. Just because their experiment failed does not mean students didn’t met standards, master content, and learn new skills in the process. Moreover, learning from failure offers a more reflective and deeper learning process. Once students are no longer afraid to fail, they are able to learn things beyond our expectations.