Challenge, Failing, and Learning

If you follow me on Twitter, you know I’ve been thinking about dropping out of graduate school.

I’ve hesitated about talking about it here for many reasons, including but not limited to: the irony of an education activist talking about the irrelevance of my education, the potential for the institution to take my remarks the wrong way, and embarrassment for getting into this situation.

And then I stumbled upon this article about failure by famed education pundit Alfie Kohn. This really struck a chord with me:

Challenge — which carries with it a risk of failure — is a part of learning. That’s not something we’d want to eliminate. But when students who are tripped up by challenges respond by tuning out, acting out, or dropping out, they sometimes do so not because of a deficiency in their makeup (lack of stick-to-itiveness) but because those challenges — what they were asked to do — aren’t particularly engaging or relevant. 

While I disagree about his conclusions and some points in particular (like denying the ability to give zeros, based on my personal teaching experience), I think he’s indirectly said something really important about failure and learning.

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In Why Kids hate school - subject by subject, scientist Roger C. Shank provides a point by point takedown of most of the subjects we learn in high school. Shank notes that “every single subject taught in high school is a mistake.” The post is worth reading in full but here are some excerpts:

Chemistry: A complete waste of time.

Because Tumblr isn’t built for real long form blogging I’ll summarize what opebukola said: students should learn things that don’t matter to them because it teaches them the ability to learn, have grit, get the job done, and not just do what we want to do.

I think that all of those can be taught without making kids go through subjects they have no interest in. Ever heard the quote “Find what you love and let it kill you”? It’s something I have seriously related to every time I really dedicated myself to anything I was interested in from an independent research paper to launching a website. One was on affirmative action, the other on online dating. Both were things I became interested in through my own exploration, learned independently from school, and did with no prompting and little supervision.

I think people are inherently curious about lots of things, so students not knowing exactly what they want is going to make them more, not less, likely to explore subjects. If you compound this with enabling students to explore their interests freely, then students will have to be able to teach themselves and find their own interest in learning because there will be no teacher with enough expertise or time to closely manage and guide every single student. I think there is much more value in having teachers be facilitators and mentors than teachers in high school. Instead of just saying they want students to become self-reliant, responsible, and developing depth in their interests, high school teachers should actually follow through.

The best times I’ve ever had in terms of personal learning were whenever teachers stepped back and gave me the freedom to do something more on my own terms, or whenever they weren’t involved until the final review. It gave me the ability to explore my interests without having to worry about finding the right answers. It took grit to teach myself things and to actually figure out what it was that I was going to be learning. It took countless sleepless nights, reading more than I’ve ever had to for class in high school or college, and many yells of “What am I doing?!”. They were more “real world” to me than and of the desk jobs I’ve had.

Furthermore, I think our society has this unhealthy obsession with making people go through undesirable experiences for personal growth. As if doing what you want is always a walk in the park. There’s always a bit of something that you don’t want to do with something that you want to do. But we’d rather have students be miserable for the sake of being falsely well-rounded and “developing character.”

When we say that someone has “learned” a subject, we typically mean that they have shown evidence of mastery not only of basic cognitive processes like factual recall and working mechanical exercises but also higher-level tasks like applying concepts to new problems and judging between two equivalent concepts. A student learning calculus, for instance, needs to demonstrate that s/he can do things like take derivatives of polynomials and use the Chain Rule. But if this is all they can demonstrate, then it’s stretching it to say that the student has “learned calculus”, because calculus is a lot more than just executing mechanical processes correctly and quickly…

Khan Academy is great for learning about lots of different subjects. But it’s not really adequate for learning those subjects on a level that really makes a difference in the world. 

Learning at these levels requires more than watching videos (or lectures) and doing exercises. It takes hard work (by both the learner and the instructor), difficult assignments that get students to work at these higher levels, open channels of communication that do not just go one way, and above all a relationship between learner and instructor that engenders trust.

Maybe what’s right about the Khan Academy is that it can get all of the learning about a subject required for standardized tests out of the way when the student is not in the classroom so that they complete more difficult, higher level assignments with a trusted instructor in the classroom. I think that anyone who believes that Khan Academy is trying to replace this is severely misguided.



Thomas Friedman today in the Times:

It has never been harder to find a job and never been easier — for those prepared for this world — to invent a job or find a customer.

I have a love/hate with Friedman because it kills me the way he turns everything into a catch phrase, but this…

I couldn’t agree more. That’s why I’m in love with the idea of studio schools, or at least if there was a studio school for entrepreneurship.

Do you think that would better prepare students to be entrepreneurs? Or are unschooling efforts better suited?



There’s no reason why 30 students should sit in a classroom and be lectured on the same thing at the same time at the same pace when everyone learns differently. There’s no reason why the tens of thousands of algebra classes are each being reinvented right now across the country by teachers of…

Finally someone who demonstrates the need and possibilities for entrepreneurship in the education sector. I totally agree with his approach. As someone who has studied policy and spent all of my internships frustrated from trying to figure out how to disrupt education from within the system, I was relieved when I finally found people trying to shake up education from outside the system. Now I’m hoping to work to develop the adaptive/customized area.

Young students who are exposed to technology with drill and practice type activities (the overwhelming majority of offerings in educational technology) have shown decreases in children’s creativity and motivation.

Yes, increases in reading levels are obviously necessary, but there are other ways to tighten budgets without sacrificing the characteristics necessary for meaningful employment and economic growth in the future, or the things that make childhood great. If anything, this is a call for entrepreneurs to develop learning programs that go beyond drill and practice and help children to develop their creativity and nurture their sense of wonder.

My EdLab blog post about the problems with teaching younger children via blended learning. Teaching reading, but sacrificing activity and creativity.