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Making Failure a Favor.

It has been preached for decades that those who fail come back with a new desire to achieve and have, at some point, learned from their lack of initial success. The most recent studies focus on entrepreneurial ventures and statistical data on failure based on previous experiences. But, for young learners, failure, in the allusive form of a capital F, comes early.

The school where I teach uses an aggressive math curriculum that is not designed for mid-year integration. It intentionally limits review of previous concepts and assumes that students have used the curriculum in previous grades. Because of this, the required unit tests (which are cumulative) cause many failing scores. I have a handful of students who know the basic principals of the content, but cannot see the complex nature of the multi-step word problems. They come home with tests where they scored 2 out of 10 points.

Because I am sensitive to the confidence of my math students, I limit the red ink, writing only Socratic questions next to mistakes and don’t put a percentage or letter grade score at the top. Instead, I ask students to take their test home and fix it.

For a few parents, the daunting task of fixing 8 impossible questions on a quiz that the student didn’t understand hours ago is a nightmare. For others, it is an opportunity to learn along side their child and to capitalize on the available time they can dedicate to gaining understanding of these math concepts. Parents are encouraged to sit down with their student and ask why they think their guess was wrong. Then, they have the student follow a process of explaining what the question is asking and what the steps in solving will be. Parents don’t realize that their investment of one-to-one time can make a big difference. Most parents visualize the teacher sitting down with their student to have the same lengthy conversations about a problem, but that is just not the case. Parents and tutors have the best opportunity to have face-time with a child and should do it whenever possible.

After a longer-than-usual homework session, students come to me the next morning, failed test in hand, claiming that they worked really hard and “got them all right”! I have parents approach me to say that they were proud of how hard their child worked and feel like they have come a long way with simply fixing a test.  To have a parent and teacher overcome the initial shock of a failed test and come together the next day to talk about success, is an awesome thing.

It’s not always that easy. My first year teaching this math curriculum was like a war zone with shrapnel coming from every direction. Parents would email the principal asking whether I knew how to teach math in the first place. Parents would gather in the hall and talk about their child’s failing grades. Of course, the parents of students who aced the test were not ready or willing to chime in and set everyone straight. I sought the expertise of my fellow teachers and they only suggested that I curve tests or drop harder questions!  With that, I would lose every opportunity to see how my advanced math students would score. And if I gave different tests for different students, I would have to explain it to the already-content parents. That’s when I decided to give the opportunity of learning from mistakes.

For those who passed a test with ease, they were praised. Their confidence was soaring and they learned to ask for more. For those who failed, they were asked to fix mistakes at home that night and the praise came the next day. To get every question right on a test, initially or after a second go, is a feat worth celebrating. My class discussions are now full of comments about how a student got a problem wrong initially and learned to navigate their incorrect thought process and come to the right conclusion. Parents know that it will take at least one full academic year to integrate into the math program and that the growth from pre-test scores to fixed post-test scores is a better gauge than the report card grade. More importantly, I take the time to tell them that I see improvement in the classroom and that their child is learning more than they had in previous math programs.  Now, with parents on my side and the students focused on finishing and not failing, I’m done with the warfare.

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