Sunday, October 9, 2011

To Err is Human, Yet at Schools...

An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made in a very narrow field.  ~Niels Bohr
On Gaming and Errors

Yesterday while driving in the car my son explained that he is improving at writing code:
Invention. (Reilly, 2008)
When I first started last summer I would get about 800 error messages and I got that down to 60 by the end of summer. The other day I got it down to 5 error messages.
My husband, Rob, quickly added that this is a gaming mentality.
Ask any gamer and he'll tell you that you learn through trial and error.
This struck me as significant.  Each week, either Rob or I have to sign a paper acknowledging each quiz and test grade my son received/earned during that week.  Next to each number, one of us signs his or her name. Some weeks Rob does this, other weeks I do it.  But it never stops or changes.  The numbers are final and we must acknowledge with ink, each performance and each "counts" towards a final marking period grade. Tests count x percentage points and quiz grades and homework count as well. 

It's all quite logical and explained at back to school night. Yet, it seems to me as if the logic is really faulty if the outcome is learning. For there are no second chances or even the understanding of how any one performance may be viewed in light of any other performance.

Eggs in a carton. Each separate, never mixed for fear of cracking.

There is no learning along the way. There are starts and stops and even these don't seem to be connected.

On Schooling

from this website
Last year, my son arrived at a new school in March and took a mathematics test three days after arriving. He failed the test, earning less than half of the available points.  A week of so later the mathematics teacher phoned to tell me she thought my son should be moved from the advanced math class as he was not doing well.  I inquired why and she mentioned the test score.  As we talked a bit it became evident that he was tested on material he simply had not been present to learn.  There was an assumption that "he should have known" the material. The test score would count toward his final average, I was warned. This seemed like misinformed mathematics to me.  I suggested as much and although the teacher agreed, the test score remained an indicator of his knowledge and performance.

But what did it actually mean?  How was it received? What did my son learn about his potential as a mathematician?  This is a child who at 21 months took the condiments from the refrigerator and organized them into two groups in an attempt to balance the lot. 11 years later he would confide to me that he just isn't' good in math, as in the class.  This is what he has learned at school. He has confused mathematics know-how with mathematics performance at school.

I never hear my son say, I am not a good gamer.  800 error messages and he sees these as an indicator of what he will learn, not as an indicator of how 'smart' he is.   School is something quite different.  In September, a friend told me about a virtual Java course at Stanford and I mentioned it to my son.  At first he seemed interested in attending. Yesterday he announced he had decided against this.
It's school.  I'd rather figure out Java like I do everything else. On line and figuring it out with friends and YouTtube.
Occupy Your Classroom

Circa 1967 (M.A. Reilly, 2009)
We make much of NCLB, its restrictive and onerous assessment practices, and we are right to do so.  I often wish though that the same educators who are vocal about state assessments might deeply inquire about their own assessment practices.  Now, I realize that there are many who do.  There are many who have more informed practices.  And there are many who simply issue grades based on some simple algorithm.

How is it that in a gaming culture, error is a way of learning and yet at schools, error is a form of damnation?  How many children sit in classrooms where they are terrorized by failing?  How many hear their teachers say to them or someone else in the class that if you fail you will be left back?  How many parents use their children's performances via grades at school as bragging rights, as bumper stickers? What is a way out of this mindless entrapment?

Karl Fisch (@karlfisch), Jose Vilson (@TheJLV) and Chad Sansing (@chadsansing) recently blogged about educators occupying their own classrooms.

Jose offered five ways for educators to occupy their classrooms.  He closed by writing:

We ought to rebel. Our best rebellion must come in the form of assuring our students do as well as possible. Outside politics have deteriorated, not elevated, the classroom experience for far too long. Before we can truly have a revolution of any nature, we must first shore up the parts of our job we can immediately control. It starts with the 30 / 60 / 90 / 150 students we have under our care.
Shore up the parts of the job we have immediate control over.

In a post dated October 7, 2011, Karl wrote:
That instead of blaming “the system,” we should realize that we are the system, and we should advocate for our students when we see things that we don’t believe are in their best interests. And that we, just like the protesters in the middle east, and just like the #occupywallstreet folks, have access to tools that Clay Shirky has shown us make it much easier to not only organize, but to actually effect change. That, really, this thing we call school doesn’t happen without us.
Be responsible as we are the system.

Chad closed his post by suggesting five proactive actions.  The last one, Build communities instead of reinforcing expectations, seems to be at the heart of what I am attempting to convey here.

Want to occupy your classroom?

Begin by asking yourself: Do the practices I espouse help to build a culture where to err is not only human, but necessary? As James Joyce penned in Ulysses"A man of genius makes no mistakes.  His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery"

What portals will you afford your students?


  1. It's beginning to feel repetitive. Hope the occupy your classroom catches fire.

  2. i teach in MSD/FMS... the first thing my students hear each year is that NO GRADE IS FINAL. That is proved and re-iterated on every assessment that follows. Self-selected projects are offered as extra-credit or primary credit, depending on the scope and effort required. Some students work hard to improve their disappointing 92's, some are satisfied with 82's, most (not all!) take the time to remedy 70's and below. I am far from alone... thought you'd like to know.

  3. @Anonymous. I am glad to hear that. Thanks for sharing. I know when Dev was at FMS, the learning was rich. Always appreicative of the work that is being done there.


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