Saturday, March 05, 2011

Success through embracing mistakes

"The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise -- with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country." - Abraham Lincoln
"I hate math, dad" my daughter said to me a few days ago. It wasn't really a shock to hear it, rather it was the final nail in the coffin, which I'd seen coming for the last few years. The middle school years, sitting in rows, staring at the backs of her peers' heads, listening to lectures, seeing story problems which were so fanciful as to be ridiculous. So Bill's dad's age is 5 less than 3 times Bill's age, and the sum of their ages is 49? Really? Does that sort of thing come up in life a lot?

As a toddler, we played with shapes and numbers for fun. I showed her how fractions work at 4 years old, by drawing on my whiteboard at the office. I drew a circle and drew lines through it, then shaded parts in and wrote down the fraction it represented. With some experimentation, she saw how shading two quarters of a circle took up the same space as one half. She "got it", and was thrilled to figure out fractions. Innoculated against the idea that math is hard, she spent all of her elementary school years scoring off the charts in math, and was offered a spot in an advanced math/science program in the 4th and 5th grades, going to a different school once a week to work solely on math and science topics.

And then there was middle school. Now in high school, with the middle school craziness coupled with years of peer pressure to reject appearing smart in order to be more popular, her standardized test scores slipped from "phenomenal" to merely "advanced". The coup de grâce happened this year, when she told me flatly how she feels about math. Another creative spirit successfully crushed by an education system designed in the 19th century to meet the needs of industrialism.

Something similar happened to me, back in the day. One of the reasons that I didn't go to college is that traditional education doesn't agree with me. In school I learned many strategies for test-taking that did not involve learning the subject matter of the class. I felt stifled by the needless repetition of lessons. I dislike the overall layout of textbooks, and the transparent committee thinking that goes into them.

What I disliked the most, though, was the idea that mistakes were bad, and not a tool for learning. A test would have, say, 20 questions on a chapter's topic, and you would have 20 chances to make a mistake that would cost you points. In classes where I "got it" to the point of being bored and wanting to move on, the repetition would get me. By question 5 I'd be hurrying through the uninteresting test and making speed-based errors rather than mistakes based on not knowing the material. In classes where I didn't "get it", the opposite behavior of going slower and using test-taking strategies artificially inflated my test scores, and made it seem that I knew material that I didn't.

Somehow I managed to come out of school with a love of numbers, and of science, history, and books, but all of that was at risk of being crushed by traditional schooling. For me it was a close shave with rejecting all academics, as I was more focused on passing tests and getting the hell away from school than I was in embracing what was being taught. It was a lot of effort to find the tiny nuggets of "interesting" buried in the rubble of textbooks and lesson plans, but I eventually found them. My high school helped when I was on the brink of throwing it all away. I went to the Linworth Alternative Program, whose teachers were much easier to cope with. The AP was a much better approach to education than I had seen in the seven schools I had been to previously, but even they were subjected to the tyranny of test = grade.

The running theme that school threw at both my daughter and myself is this: Pass the test. The more mistakes you make, the worse you "do" in the class, regardless of what skills you learn. Measuring knowledge or understanding is not happening, only test-taking ability is being measured. To prepare for a test, one crams, regurgitates, and forgets. Next year, the teacher has to re-explain the basics supposedly learned the previous year before starting any new material.

Outside of schools, making mistakes is a tool that increases your understanding of the world around you. When learning a new skill, you will be very error-prone at first as your brain and body try to cope with something they have never done before. When you first learn to play the piano, you can't make it through a piece error-free to save your life. Eventually the smaller skills that make a musician get mastered: sight-reading music, hand separation, hearing the piece in your head, finger strength and speed, passion.

Any junior level software developer tasked with solving a new problem will tell you this story: "I took the problem statement and started coding for it. Once I figured out what I was doing wrong, I better understood the nature of the problem. Then I started over and wrote a better program." A more advanced developer will tell you the real value of tests is in failing them. In fact, the Test Driven Development model is exactly that: Write a test for the requirement before you write any code, a test that is guaranteed to fail out of the gate. Run the test and watch it fail. (If it doesn't fail, your test is flawed). Code for the new test, then run all the tests again, until nothing fails. (There's more to it than that outside the scope of this screed, and if you're interested you can get more info here.)

In my job, tests are for tuning functionality, and if you don't fail a bunch of tests in the process of writing your program, you're either a damned genius or you're writing something simplistic and boring. In school, tests immediately serve to bring down your grade in the class, so the students must concentrate not on learning skills, but on passing tests. Will this be on the test? What's the answer the teacher wants?

This is all ass-backwards on its face, and judging by my daughter Stacey's experiences 20 years after my own, schools are still being run the same way. There is advocacy for change, by the likes of Dan Meyer and Ken Robinson, but change is slow in coming.

My solution? Grade all classes the way arts classes are graded, with the three Ps: Participation, passion, and projects. In drama class, a play can demonstrate the skills of memorization, timing, getting into character. In drawing classes, projects can demonstrate understanding of perspective, observation, different mediums.

In math classes, is it important that students can calculate by rote dozens of times in a row? No, unless they are yearning for assembly line work. Instead, how about projects demonstrating the desired skills? Look for a real life problem that can be measured and have math principles applied to it. Mom and Dad each have cars with different MPGs, and they work different distances from home. How can they save gas? Dad's credit cards are maxed out, and he has $40 extra dollars a month dedicated to paying them off. Each card has a different balance and interest rate. In what order should he apply the $40 to pay them off the quickest?

Math class would be the easiest to reform, since I think everyone would agree it's the most broken. Other classes would be harder (by me, anyway) to modernize, but I believe similar project-based approaches are possible for them as well. I also believe schools should no longer be aligned with the needs of the business world. They should export thinkers, not workers. Businesses can take care of their own needs, and will find other ways to make drones when they no longer have the explicit consent of public education.

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