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Conquering a Fear of Trying in the Classroom

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It is the teacher's job to engage the students and provide an environment for learning -- it is the students' job to try. Sometimes it is scary to try when we are unfamiliar with new material. We are vulnerable and insecure. This is true for adults, and it is true for our students.

I run a three year Technology Academy at Foshay Learning Center, a low income K-12 span school in South Los Angeles. I teach students from 10-12th grade and work with an advisory board and mentors to create a program that educates my students how to navigate college and career. I expect my students to be new to most of the material I present them in my digital computing courses. I build in class time for experimentation and exploration. Many of the projects we do require iterations for improvement, just as many writing assignments require multiple drafts. My expectation is that students will struggle and not be confident. I know that learning takes time, and not everyone learns the same way, or enters with the same amount of previous knowledge. My only requirement for my students is that they try. I am teaching them to learn through trial and error, since that is how most people learn on the job and in life.

I constantly verify that philosophy when I check in with my business partners. Recently, Douglas Sellers, one of the business partners who is the Chief Technical Officer of a start-up company, told me that he tells all his junior programmers that they need to be comfortable with failing. He expects that they will try and fail at least three times in a row in order to get it right on the fourth time. In fact, the programmers are encouraged to throw out work at the end of the day if it is not going anywhere, and try again the next day. His programmers, including himself, participate in paired programming for at least a few hours every day. This means that they actually work on a program together; they are not isolated in a cubicle working alone. They gain confidence talking through ideas and eliminate the fear of being wrong. They find their mistakes at a quicker rate and they problem solve more effectively when they talk and share what they are doing.

If this is what is happening in the real world, shouldn't that also be what is reflected in my classroom? I don't want my students to suffer outside of the classroom because they were never pushed out of their comfort zone. I don't want them to feel like a failure because they did not learn how to try. I want my classroom to be a place where they build their confidence through asking questions, working with each other, and checking in on a regular basis to be sure their tries are heading in the right direction.

I learned quickly as a teacher that one of the worst things that can happen in a classroom is when you give students an extended period of time to work on something, only to see that they were lost at the get go, and all you can do is fail them for poor work. I have seen this happen in large projects in all subjects across the matrix. This is frustrating because most of the students at my school will not ask questions along the way -- they will just turn in bad work, or worse, nothing at all.

It is not the fail that they fear -- it is the exposure, the vulnerability of the try. Failing without trying means that they can provide excuses: "The teacher didn't explain it well," "I didn't try it in the first place," or worse -- "I was lazy," or "it was boring."

Foshay Tech students
Foshay Tech students. 

Let's talk about my student Juan, a soon to be senior. Juan, like many of my students, actively dislikes being vulnerable and navigating the unknown. However, unlike most of my students who will shut down and stop working and just wait for the next instruction, Juan likes to procrastinate by challenging me. He would rather antagonize me and cause a classroom distraction than focus on the directions and try something he may not have done before. He once loudly complained to me that I don't teach him. He said all I do is give him challenges that he has to figure out on his own, when I should be in the front of the room telling him how to do something -- you know, "teaching him."

Not quite, I responded. How do you think it is in the world outside a classroom? In my experience, a boss does not usually stand behind you and specifically tell you how to do your job. There is no permanent guide that tells you how to make every decision before you even begin. Yes, I do give my students challenges that they may not know exactly how to do -- that is how the world challenges all of us every day.

Even though my students may not know exactly how to do something, I always point out all the tools they have in order to begin trying. First, they have access to the Internet where almost anything can be researched. We spend a lot of time in class learning how to effectively manipulate our searches in order to get the most directed and focused results. This is an important step, since we all know we really only look at the first 3-5 links once we type in our search parameters.

Second, I encourage them to talk to their neighbors so they can strategize together -- much like the paired programming in a tech company. One of the things we do in 10th grade is a problem solving unit in my Exploring Computer Science course, with which we learn to get comfortable with working through a problem, and coming to terms with the fact that there might be multiple solutions or different paths to getting at the solution. This unit is amazing because it begins to nudge most students out of their comfort zones, and gives them experience with trial and error as well as working with each other.

In addition to these tools, at the end of class periods I often have my students turn in what they did for the day. This occurs especially at the start of a project so I can see where they are headed. This is not for me to tell them if they are right or wrong; instead, this way I can see the common mistakes or praise the students, and have them present innovative work and ideas to the rest of the class.

This chart illustrates why when a student asks me a question, I will often send over a student who just figured it out a few minutes ago

Another thing that bothers my students is the time it takes to figure something out. Trying something new is slow. It takes time. My students will try something for about 5 minutes before they start grumbling that it is too hard, too confusing, too complicated. A job is about endurance and patience. Most work projects take a lot of time; students cannot expect a quick solution outside of a classroom. Not only do they need to build their confidence through trying, but it also helps build endurance, patience, and stick-to-it-tiveness -- which are all critical skills necessary in life.

Most recently Juan made a game in Adobe Flash. I gave him tutorials to help guide him in his progress, with animated GIFs to illustrate how it will look on his computer. He got very invested in this project. The first time he tried to program part of the game, it did not work. He quickly got confused, and then frustrated -- and then he got angry. I recognized his feelings -- I get angry as well when I am frustrated, and often would like to blame others. He kept calling me over to fix it for him. I kept trying to send other students to help review his work with him -- he wanted nothing to do with them. I then told Juan to turn in his work to me so I could review it and then help guide him to a solution. He did not like this option. "It's not done," he said. "It doesn't work so I can't turn it in."

In the end Juan found his mistake, on his own with a little redirection from me. He was puffed up with pride when he figured it out. He came over to explain to me what he had done wrong the first time around. He volunteered 10 minutes later when I told him there was a student with a similar issue. Would he have the same confidence if I had just told him what to do? Would he have felt the same excitement of getting his game to work on his own? Would he have actually learned?

Life is not a multiple choice test. Life is not eyes on your own paper. The choices that we make, how we manage our time, how we work productively and proactively with others, is left up to us. It is hard and challenging, and not always as clear as running a Scantron to see the percentage correct. However, I do know that the way I teach will at least give my students a frame of reference about how to respond when they navigate life on their own, without me or any other teacher telling them exactly what to do and how to do it. This method of trial and error will help their confidence, their inquiry, and their endurance. I teach my students in order for them to be successful human beings outside the classroom. The fear of trying gets in the way of success, and therefore we work together to conquer those fears.

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