Sunday, August 4, 2013

Transforming Failure into Success

Every now and then I perform a Google news search for "mastery learning" to see what pops up. A few days ago, a story from a newspaper in northern Kentucky caught my eye. In Public demands answers from RCS board at the Ledger Independent, the author describes a county school board meeting. At one point, the county staff member in charge of assessment proposed using mastery learning, but parents in attendance weren't especially receptive.
In other business, the board attempted to listen as Garrick Ratliff tried to explain how a Mastery Learning Policy for RCS could benefit every student and leave none without instructional attention.

The program was used at Eminence Independent School when it was in a similar financial and educational crisis, with extremely positive results at preparing students for college, or careers, he said.

Commentary from audience members interrupted his presentation, including negative comments from a parent who claimed it never helped her child, in a trial class, and another parent who challenged Ratliff on the value of the program.

Another parent suggested poorly performing students should be allowed to fail, as a learning tool, a contradiction to the MSP plan to encourage every student to achieve passing grades, while challenging students who are learning faster to be more proficient in advanced learning activities. [emphasis added]

Eminence Independent School District's high school recently established a program called Framework of Innovation for Reinventing Education (FIRE). The "foundation" of the program is mastery learning, and each week students take core classes on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and participate in remediation/enrichment activities on Tuesday and Thursday. For more information, see the description in Eminence on "FIRE" after changes at the Kentucky Teacher.

The FIRE program sounds promising, but I have not read any details about its implementation. Also, achievement data for the 2012-2013 school year is not yet available at the Kentucky School Report Card site. So I will ignore the first two negative comments from parents and focus on the third comment about failure as a "learning tool." (This topic relates to my July 7 post.)

As John Dewey explains in Democracy and Education, all experiences are "educative," technically. They result in learning. But not all experiences are constructive, too. They don't necessarily increase the likelihood of future learning and growth.

If failure, like any experience, is always educative, under what conditions is it constructive, too? Based on my studies, I'd like to propose two conditions:
  1. Students must receive good feedback and opportunities to improve. Good feedback tells students what they did right, what they did wrong, and how they can improve. 
  2. Students must perceive failure as a temporary condition resulting from misunderstanding and/or lack of effort.
Traditional teaching fails on both counts. Traditional teachers may provide good feedback, but what good is that feedback if students don't receive opportunities to make use of it? Students are unlikely to invest time and effort to remediate themselves if their grades are already set in stone. Worst of all, traditional teaching often causes students to perceive failure as a permanent condition resulting from their inability. After repeated failure, many students begin to think, "I'm going to fail, so why even bother to try?" This mindset is called learned helplessness.

Mastery learning is designed to ensure that failure is constructive, not destructive. Mastery teachers provide opportunities for students to improve. Through the process of remediation, mastery students learn something in addition to the explicit learning objectives of the lesson. They also learn how to transform failure into success. With the assistance of the teacher and their classmates, students examine, understand, and correct their mistakes. Slowly but surely, they become self-regulated learners.

What is the main message about failure that teachers should be trying to send? Failure has consequences, or failure can be transformed into success. I think the answer — and the superior teaching method — is obvious.