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The biology teacher who demands her students fail


• ExcelinEd

What is the value of letting students struggle in class?

Twenty biology teachers from around the country tackled that question, with some of the responses periodically posted on a Washington Post blog.

An essay by Helen Snodgrass, who teaches AP biology teacher in Houston, had us hooked with the first paragraph as she discussed the necessity for students to fail.

We are including an excerpt and link to the entire piece by Ms. Snodgrass:

When students first walked into my classroom this fall, many of them immediately noticed a large quote on the wall above the whiteboard: “In this class, failure is not an option. It’s a requirement.” “You want us to fail?” they all asked incredulously. While they were skeptical of my intentions at first, by the end of that first class period they were already starting to see how failure could actually be a good thing.

As my students started to learn that first day, I have this quote hanging in my classroom, not because I have a desire to see any of my students fail the class, but as a constant reminder of the powerful learning that occurs when people have to (or are given the opportunity to) struggle through challenging material and fail a few times along the way. In my AP Biology class, this does not mean that I simply sit back and watch students grasp at straws as they tackle really difficult material. What it does mean is carefully selecting tasks for students to work on that might not have one clear answer or only one possible approach and then providing them the space and the skills to work through the challenge and reflect on their process and struggles as they go.

My interest in focusing on this type of productive struggle in my class came from both a strong belief that people learn more when allowed to struggle than when provided all the answers and from realizing that students (and teachers) usually get the opposite message in school. Too often teachers are told that all material must be “scaffolded” for students. While scaffolding can be a very good thing in the classroom, it is sometimes taken to mean that all material must be broken down into such small and simple steps or chunks of information that students are all able to be successful every step of the way. If a significant number of students in a class are not able to immediately find the answer, this is often seen as an indication that the teacher did something wrong either in presenting or breaking down the material.

Students, as a result, often get the message from very early on in their education that if they do not immediately grasp how to solve a problem or get the right answer, they must not be very smart or good at that particular subject. With years of training in this way of thinking, it comes as no surprise that students often respond to challenging work by either immediately asking the teacher for help or by giving up.

To read more visit the Washington Post.


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