Saturday, November 6, 2010

How do you make students comfortable with failure?

Seriously. I'm asking how.

I'm working on an I-Search project with the 9th grade Thinking & Writing classes; kind of a "get your feet wet, learn the basics" project. We've talked about defining a topic, identifying key words and ideas, where and how to search, evaluating sources, and citations. It's a good way for me to get to know more about them as researchers (so future instruction can be better designed), and for them to both explore a topic of interest and get a bit more comfortable with the research process.

But many of them are struggling. And I'm struggling. Not necessarily with the process or the ideas or the few things about research that are nice and neat and linear--just the parts of research that aren't nice and neat and linear. Which is, you know, most of them.

Research, I think many of us would agree, is an iterative process. You search, there's new questions and dead ends and unexpected turns, so you regroup and refocus and re-search. And that's difficult and uncomfortable, especially when you're just starting out as a researcher, but you get better at it--and, if you're anything like me, you begin to enjoy the journey of research almost as much as the answer you find at the end (assuming you even get to the "end"). I know not everyone comes to enjoy the process of research, but my hope is that students at least become comfortable and confident with the ups and downs of the process.

Only that's really, really not happening for a number of my students, and a lot of their frustration is kind of heartbreaking for me.

For those of you who don't know, the school I work at serves students with learning disabilities--dyslexia, ADD/ADHD, executive functioning disorders, etc. These are kids who, oftentimes, have been really and truly beat up by the educational system. They have been made to feel stupid. They have been exhorted to "just try harder" when they really are trying their hardest. They have often been denied the supports they need to learn. And a big part of what we do here--particularly in the first couple years--is put in those supports and help them learn how to learn the way they learn best. We take what had been a messy, unknowable process--learning--and give it structure and sequence.

Only that doesn't work for research. There's no way I can create an authentic research assignment that also proceeds in a linear fashion. Throw in website evaluation and citation and you have three often messy, confusing processes.

Frankly, sometimes I'm surprised that more students don't break down in tears or give up in frustration.

And I don't know what to do. I know that I need to create authentic research opportunities for my students. I know that they need to get comfortable with the ups and downs and ins and outs of the research process. But when they experience initial failure, they often shut down--and I get it. Years of being made to feel like you can't learn will wear a kid down. And it breaks my heart when I see a smart kid who assumes that they're struggle with research is a reflection on them, and not a reflection of the fact that it is a difficult process for everyone.

So how do we make students--particularly students who believe that failure means there is something wrong with them--comfortable with the idea of failure being part of the process?


  1. This is purely speculative -- have not tried it with students to see if it works -- but perhaps it might help to be very explicit about what the goal of early-stage research is (and, if applicable, how they will be graded on their early stage):

    It is not about producing a list of sources. You will not be graded on whether you have produced X sources of type Y (at this stage, at least).

    It is about understanding the shape of the landscape. My expectation is that, after your first round of research, you can tell me about resources & lines of approach that do or do not work. My expectation is that you can tell me a revised statement of your topic, based on the kinds of information you have (or have not!) been able to find. My expectation, maybe, is that you can talk about why particular kinds o sources might or might not exist (or be findable) -- who would have written them? why? who would have had an incentive to make them available? why? or why not?

    Which is to say: I think I'm suggesting redefining it so that the frustrations of early-stage research are not failures. (Even though I really like failure and risk-taking and innovation and learning and how they all relate.) Or actually -- I don't think I'm redefining it at all because I think early-stage research *is* all about learning the landscape and refining our understanding of how that influences our topic choices -- but I am saying, maybe it would help to be very explicit about how the aim is *learning*, and model how we can learn from not finding things as well as from finding things, and celebrate students for their ability to be articulate about the process they went through, their reasons for choosing the refinements that they did, and where they can go from here.

  2. Just brainstorming here, but....model for them the process out loud you would follow, actually talking through the dead ends and failures of research. Give specific examples of your own failures and what you did to go back and refine. Read to them from a great book called "Mistakes that Worked" all about discoveries that happened or inventions that came out of something that did not work. Invoke Edison.

    Good luck! You are doing great work. I used to work at your school as a teacher before I got my library degree many years ago and it's great to know the library is in good hands.

  3. Thank you both so much for your feedback (and Kelly, it was great meeting you!).

    I really want to re-vamp my research lessons so we can focus on *process* instead of *product*. Students--and faculty, frankly--are really uncomfortable with not knowing what the end is--mostly focusing on "how many pages will the paper be, how many sources do I need" kind of things. And finding the time to truly collaborate and re-build from the ground up--often working against teacher memories of what research assignments are "supposed" to be is a real challenge. As much as I love having research integrated into the curriculum, part of me would really like to have a stand-alone class in order to really delve into the process (building around a lot of your ideas). Oh, and a clone in order to make that possible.

    Lots of thoughts and ideas right now. . .