Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Failure is not an option

I created this blog to provide practical examples of things that teachers can do inside of their classrooms, and wanted to try to avoid posts that were just my opinions on general theory of teaching.  So much for that.  I've been kicking this idea around in my head over the last couple weeks and I feel it's just too important not to share.

"We need to let kids fail so that they can learn important lessons about working hard and resilience.  People are going to have failures in life and they need to prepare for that."  I hear ideas like this a lot throughout blogs, twitter, in professional development sessions and within my school.  Whenever I hear it, I immediately agree.  It makes a lot of sense, and I feel like nowadays kids are given things too easily and protected from setbacks and failure too much.

However, in math especially it simply can't be an option to let kids fail.  When I say "failing" I mean failing a test, or even just failing on an important concept within a test.  I'm not by any means suggesting giving students grades they don't deserve, what I am suggesting is forcing students to deserve good grades in math.  Now this is easier for me because I have fewer students than most teachers, but I think the concept in general still applies to math courses across the board and we can build our classes in a way that helps students to succeed without sweeping problems under the rug.

So why am I presenting such conflicting statements?  I agree that kids should be able to fail, but I don't "let" them fail in my class.  The reason is because of how math is different than other subjects.  Math always builds.  That's not to say there's no building in other courses, but it's more gradual, more encapsulated and there's more chance to catch up.

In math courses, students need much of what they learn to be able to succeed in future math(and science) classes.  Let's say, for instance, a kid fails my test on solving equations in algebra 1 and it's totally his fault.  He didn't pay attention in class, didn't do his homework, didn't study and didn't ask for help.  Now if you ignore what the topic is and just look at what he did, does he deserve to fail? Sure.  Here's where the problem sets in though.  If I just let it go here, I'm not just letting him fail.  I'm setting him up for failure.  Unless this kid is explicitly taught how to solve equations somewhere else(and he very likely won't be), then I'm setting him up for failure in every following high school and college math class as well as Chemistry and Physics.  Am I taking too much responsibility here?  I don't think so.  It's my job to teach him the concepts of Algebra 1, and his future teachers will expect that he knows it if he passes the course.  If I don't intervene it's not as simple as letting him learn his lesson, it's dooming him to future failure as well.

Therefore, it is essential that in math courses students have option to (or better yet, they must) improve upon past grades for topics that they didn't master.  Dan seems to have a pretty good system which I'll get around to implementing at some point, but for now I just have mandatory retests in some cases and optional retests for anything.  I'll also find ways to revisit topics that students generally understood but didn't master (like warm up activities where they have to get every question perfect for some sort of motivator).

Are there topics in math that are less important that I'll let go if a student doesn't totally understand them?  Sure.  In general though, I get freedom over my curriculum so there aren't a whole ton of topics that aren't important later. There certainly aren't enough side topics for a student to be able to fail my class despite mastering the important stuff.

So how are my students going to be taught that important lesson on failure? I say, let their history teacher do it.   Seriously.  Not necessarily history, but anywhere where the loss of one unit isn't possibly the loss of that entire subject.  Living in a world where people advertise if not brag about how bad they are at math when I tell them my profession just solidifies my feelings on this topic.  Students that miss out on really learning how to solve an equation, or other core building topics will grow up to be those people;  There are already too many of them in the world, and I refuse to take part in creating more.

What are your thoughts?