Failing in Science

My teaching partner and I giggled like little middle schoolers.  We knew exactly what we were doing, and we were over the moon excited to watch our dear sweet science students come completely undone.  We were setting them up for failure and we couldn’t wait.

One bulb.

One battery.

One wire.

One job – make the bulb light.

One rule – figure it out on your own.

Panic.  Sheer panic.  Immediately 12 out of 15 hands shot up and the other three peeps simply decided to forgo the classroom decorum and start shouting out questions.

Is this graded?

How long do we have?

What happens if we can’t do it?

I forgot my pencil…

Do we get partners?

I have a headache – can I go to the nurse?

Nope, not graded.

You have as long as it takes.

You can do it.

Don’t need a pencil right now….

No partners this time.

Sure – but hurry back from the nurse.

Strategies emerged within the first five minutes of trial and error (or rather failing, over and over again).  There were a few that immediately lit the bulb.  As to be expected, they sat smug in their chairs, arms crossed with a vicious little grin across their face.  One guy credited a Christmas gift of a circuit board and supplies for his success.  Across the room I heard “Man, all I got was an x-box…”

We had protesters.  Sit ins.  Silence strikes.  Arms crossed in flat out refusal to try any longer. (It had been 6 minutes)

We had nose-to-the-grindstone kids that wouldn’t look up for anything.  Those were the ones who built a wall around their space at the table with binders and books and were doggedly determined to figure this out.  And NO ONE was going to cheat off of them.

We had the cheats.  The prowlers.  The ones with the wondering eyes.  Some were more subtle…strolling casually up front for a tissue, glancing around for any little piece of knowledge to help them escape this little bit of hell on Earth.  Others practically fell out of their chairs trying to look for clues.

The blamers were the best.  The bulb was faulty – can I have a different one?  My battery is dead.  You gave me a bad wire.  They were 1000% sure this was somehow my fault.  I asked them to bring up the equipment in question and Iducked under my desk to do a little test run myself.  I always popped back up with a big grin, let them know everything worked for me, and turned to the next customer in line who was ready to lodge a complaint.

There were tears.  A lot of tears.  Some sobs but not enough to change the course of the activity.  Valiant attempts I might add, but ultimately the whimpers and whines fell on deaf ears.

After about 30 minutes, roughly half had succeeded and moved on to reading out of the coveted science nonfiction books with titles like UFOs, Unexplained Mysteries and Ghosts and Spirits.  Happy as clams, kicked back, feet up.  Success.

The other 50% were struggling.  Some switched strategies and gave up.  Others rallied and came back.  Some were successful in their sad attempts to cheat without being noticed….I suspect they did not share the feeling of accomplishment that their peers did who stuck with it and figured it out.

Next came the tough part.  With 3 minutes left and a small number still with in various stages of angst and protest, I had to decide – do they walk out “failures” or do I reveal the answer.

Some gave up their recess to come back and keep trying.  Those were the ones that got a little nudge from me to help speed the process along.  Others I didn’t see the rest of the day.  But I did hear from their parents that night.

The tone of the emails ranged from pleading and desperation to borderline anger and rage.  They asked for extra help.  They wondered if a science tutor was needed.  Some asked about the impact on grades.  Another questioned exactly how long would I let this game go on and sacrifice real learning (loved THAT one).

Eventually everyone was able to light their bulb.  Not everyone used perseverance and trail and error – some looked it up on the internet or asked a friend.  Some unabashedly threw their parents under the bus and declared that they had given them the answer.

simple circuit

We had spoken about failure for months in class and how it is an intricate part of scientific discovery – you make a guess, test it, sometimes you are right but more often you are wrong.  You tweak and change and re-think and try it again. But when push came to shove – when they had to fail in order to learn in a real way….they had very,very little experience with how to handle it.

As a middle school teacher, epic failure seemed to be as common as too much Axe cologne in the mornings. Kids failed daily. Their outfits failed. Make-up attempts were usually a failure on some level. They failed tests, their friends failed them, lunch options failed, ….. It is the great connector and the great teacher during the adolescent years. But it is hard – as much on us to watch as it is on them. We remember the struggle and we want to take it away. Hopefully this book will put more of the teacher in my parenting ….it is much easier to tow the line when the kiddoes aren’t your own!



Posted in LOL

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