Hi y’all. My name is Kyra Mello. I am in the Teaching International Languages (TIL) MA program with an emphasis in TESOL. I am working on this degree during a sabbatical from my position teaching English/Composition and coordinating the Writing Language Development Center at Yuba College. I’ve been in a teaching/facilitating/tutoring/work-shopping context since 1999. I love what I do, but I am never satisfied. I appreciate and recognize the value in Vygotsky, Dewey, Gee, Lave, Wenger’s theories of learning, but I struggle trying to implement these theories within the school setting (Lave and Wenger discuss some of the problems related to this and explain why their focus is outside of school at the end of Chapter 1). I guess that’s my ultimate question. How do I implement these theories in a school context?
Last week we discussed Dewey’s ideas of learning as doing, experimentation, and persistence to satisfy curiosity—an impulse Dewey says to “work it out.” I was thinking about these ideas and my students during our class discussion, and I couldn’t help thinking about how my students and I do not share these same views of learning. Many of my students have been schooled in passivity—they want right answers from me. They are very uncomfortable with ideas of experimentation; experimentation, after all, leads to failure, and failure is bad. Culturally, we have a real problem when it comes to failure. We are bombarded with narratives of “genius,” “natural-born talent,” and “American exceptionalism.” I believe that this has contributed to and fostered a false narrative of success and ability as something that we either naturally have or don’t have.
When it comes to school, students seem to believe that they either already have intelligence in their heads or they don’t. That’s just the way it is. As a result, many of my students struggle with a deep fear of failure. A failure seems to confirm some bullshit idea (or culturally constructed myth) that they don’t have intelligence. In my experience students (as opposed to people generally), especially, struggle with this fear—after all schools affirm and reaffirm this idea about intelligence all the time through grades, and IEPs, and test scores, and remedial placements, and ELD classes, level reading groups, and I could go on. Students struggle so much with a fear of failure that in the community college nearly half the students in a given class stop attending half way through the semester. Sometimes this is because life just sucks, but a lot of time it’s self-doubt and self-sabotage. A lot of the time, students are passing class—actually doing quite well—when they just stop attending. This often happens when students encounter a difficult assignment one that doesn’t come easy. If you have to work at it, if it’s hard, then there’s something wrong with you… Some teachers (and the public) will interpret this as lazy students or students who are playing the financial aid game. But, luckily there’s been some research to show that what really drives community college students to drop or fail courses, and what we know is that there is a lot of fear and misunderstanding. My friend and colleague, Katie Hern, did some interesting research on what she calls the Academic Sustainability Gap if you’re interested to know more.
I was thinking about all of this when I heard an interview with James Dyson, the vacuum inventor, on Science Friday. Ok. So I hate the opening of this interview since it’s predicated on the idea that Dyson climbed the ladder of success from nothing to the 7th richest citizen in the UK (how annoying); however, what Dyson says about learning as doing, experimentation, and failure is pretty awesome. At one point he says (around the 4.30 mark), the idea of marking students as brilliant or clever for having the right answer is wrong. Life doesn’t work like that. Life doesn’t have the right answers available all the time. We have to work them out. Dyson says he would actually give better marks to students for the number of mistakes they make. He says students who make mistakes have experienced failure and learned from it while the child who gets the answer right because she remembered an answer isn’t necessarily the one who is going to change the world. So to connect Dyson and Dewey… There’s a problem that needs a solution, so the student has an impulse to make a box (or a vacuum or whatever). They will have to work it out. Figure out the different options. Try one way, and in the course of it realize another better way. Throw it down, and start again when it doesn’t work. Check out what someone else has done. Embrace the failure and persist through the frustration. Observe and learn from mistakes. One might have to make 5127 prototypes or more to get an answer. That’s learning… RIGHT!?
So, how do we change the cultural mindset? The student mindset?