As teachers we want to see our students succeed. We want to see them accomplish the tasks we put in front of them and answer all the questions that they have. We can even feel that our own skill as teachers is contingent on how well the students do at the task. In some cases our job security and financial futures are also tied to student performance. (For an object lesson in how toxic this can be for a school system, see the recent Atlanta court ruling.) This puts pressure on teachers and can lead to us acting against the best interests of ourselves and, of course, our students.
One area in which this overzealous desire to see students succeed can effect the classroom is in the simplification of the activities that students are asked to engage in.
This can take the form of over instruction, where every detail of the task is laid out precisely for the student to follow in an algorithmic manner. Reducing the activity to first you do this, then this, then you are finished. In essence turning the learning opportunity into a solved game.
Another way in which this can happen is in the selection of activities which have a discrete and defined answer over more open ended activities. This encourages the student belief in there being one (and only one) correct answer. It goes on to limit their engagement with the material to discovering the correct answer above all else.
Some teachers will not see any problem with this in the classroom. They will instead point out how the ability for students to achieve even simple tasks builds “self esteem“, and that they are trying to insure that comprehension of the material is achieved.
As valuable as these goals are, when taken to extremes, they have serious consequences for the students. The first is the fragilizing of the students learning. Carol Dweck found that when high achieving students (the very ones who are used to being able to do all the exercises) were confronted with an activity that was impossible, they lost the ability to solve even simple problems afterward. In effect, it helps to train students to go to pieces if they are confronted with something novel or beyond their expected difficulty level.
The Second is the lack of engagement. Computer games have been described beautifully as “pleasantly frustrating”. When the outcome of a task is clear before the task is ever undertaken, there is no frustration—something that might be considered valuable at first glance. However, with out frustration and uncertainty, the human brain has difficulty focusing on the task at hand. Instead the person goes through the activity on the equivalent of autopilot. This disengagement has a profound effect on students staying in school. One study found that the number one reason for students dropping out was boredom.
The final way in which this desire to see success above all else is toxic is that it deprives the students of opportunities to make mistakes, and teachers the opportunities to change their teaching in response. Without making mistakes, it is impossible for students to learn. They become recollection engines instead of learners. If there is no chance to fail, there is no opportunity to learn. Furthermore, if all the students are succeeding all the time, the teacher has no real information about the students progress. Many teachers forget that negative results in the classroom are still results that can influence and help to improve the classroom.
So what can we do?
We have to balance the activities in the classroom to make them more challenging. All the students being able to do the activity without any errors is as bad a situation as having no students able to do the activity at all.
Teachers must be wary of the desire to rush too quickly to the aid of a student who is struggling. The struggle itself is in many regards more important than the answer to the question. If the student needs support to help them complete the activity, this should be given. However, teachers need to make sure that they are giving support and feedback, not simply providing the answers to the students.
Finally, we have to change how we view failure; from being a threat and something to be avoided, to something that is providing valuable information to both the students and ourselves. We have to move towards more enjoyable failure conditions for both students and teachers.
Without the right to struggle and fail, the classroom runs the risk of becoming meaningless and students become recollection engines rather than thinking people.