Learning is the Goal

Danny Wahl's picture Danny Wahl  •   •  Education

"Our hypothesis was right."

First, a Story

I've been a judge for the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) in Asia, I think oh... about 5 times now. In fact, I've been the judge of projects that have gone on to the US and placed and even won. I've seen students offered scholarships to universities based on their work, but one thing I've never seen is someone say "my hypothesis was wrong."

I've seen project records and logs which might, might, document some adversity. But fortunately for the student it's always overcome. This is particularly true of the engineering projects. The closest thing I've ever seen to someone saying their hypothesis was wrong is when they follow up with "the results were even better than we predicted!"

Now, full disclosure, I was picked as a judge because of my technical background- specifically computing. There are some projects to which I am ignorant of the content (especially anything dealing with chemistry) but I am familiar enough with the framework of the scientific method to know what questions to ask, and when answers don't pass the sniff test.

Additionally, in the world of engineering the refrain might as well be "results or it didn't happen." I've literally had sessions go like this:

  • Student: here's our widget it does X and Y.
  • Me: show me X
  • Student: [tries X- fails]
  • Me: show me Y
  • Student: [tries Y- fails]
  • Student: it's worked every other time! I don't know what's going on! Believe me this thing work! Please don't judge based on the demonstration, we promise it works.

The Problem

Now, perhaps you think that I'm berating these students. This post is is an unmerited attack on high school students who are just participating in a science fair, and trying to win.

That's the problem. Well, let me be more specific: we're the problem. We (adults in education) have set these students up for success. Success, or passing, or winning, or the opposite of failing- is what matters most. To the point that (in their minds) success must be achieved by any means. Steal code (by which I mean use without attribution*), falsify scientific data, change your hypothesis after you get your results, BE RIGHT.

Of course, if you look at the rubric for a science fair it's all based on method- not results. No where does it say "Was your hypothesis right? +10 points" But of course, you know that there's theory, and then there's practice. What other event, in all of a child's schooling, are they given full credit for an incorrect answer? If I recall correctly we spend a fair amount of time attacking the "A for effort" straw man.

Even so-called formative assessments (quizzes, etc...) are awarded points and logged for value with the so-called summative assessments. In fact it's entirely possible, generally speaking, to fail a class because enough formative assessments have been "failed", results of the summative assessment be damned!

No, we demand perfection. Straight A's. 4.0 4.1 4.25. We demand better than perfection. And at the end of the day (or 13 years...) we choose the best student and parade them out in front of all the other students to give a speech.

The Solution

Well, unfortunately for you, dear reader, the solution while fairly obvious is both nuanced and outside the scope of this post. Instead I offer you the remedy.

The Remedy

Perhaps I'm being pedantic, but I believe that there's a difference between a solution and a remedy. A solution is a top-down, functional, calculated fix. A solution is indisputable, absolute, and THE right way. We've seen plenty of solutions in education, and we seem to be fixing our way into more and more problems. This is what Will Richardson calls "doing the wrong thing the right way."

On the other hand, a remedy is medicinal. A remedy is a holistic approach to a number of symptoms that attempt to address an underlying cause (or causes). A remedy takes time, re-assessment, and may cause other symptoms to flare-up during application but ultimately leaves a system in a better state than it started.

Here's my proposed remedy: document your failures. Don't regale your students about people like Einstein or Elon Musk and their failures on the road to success. Don't merely give them trivium about how many times Edison failed before he invented the light bulb. Because you're still setting the goal at success, and frankly (given the current system), if you told you students to invent the light bulb they'd only get one shot at it before they got an "F".

Adam Savage says "failure is always an option." but that's kind of a lie. A certain kind of failure is allowable, a tolerance or margin of error if you will. Let me put it this way. Was there ever a week when a new MythBusters was supposed to air, but instead the title card read something like,

The new episode of MythBusters will not be airing tonight as Jamie and Adam went way over budget and time trying to solve an engineering problem. They still haven't figured it out, but hopefully we'll be back next week.

No way. Failure, was not an option. Probably contractually so. And that's OK.

But showing your students that the MythBusters fail is not- because the goal is still success.

So, instead of documenting the failures of others (who are probably successful now), I challenge you to document your own failures. Not your stumbling blocks on the way to success, but rather things that you just straight up failed at. Didn't work. Maybe even cost you some valuable time or money for which there was no reconciling.

Students need to learn that failure is OK before they learn that it's just a stepping stone to success. We tend to jump straight to success and then tell them that failure is OK. This leaves them incapable of understanding how as they are diametrically opposed.

A clarification

I've talked a lot about not setting the goal on "success". I can imagine that some might take issue with that, so I'd like to clarify. The success that I'm saying we should avoid is "do what it takes to get straight A's" success. It's the success that causes someone to lie about their science fair project.

At the same time I'm advocating the acceptance of failure. Assuredly I'm not saying to allow a competent student to be content with work below what he is capable of (notice I didn't say a grade letter?).

No, the goal I'm talking about should be on learning. You might call this "success" and, well, that's just semantics. The point is that by ignoring failure, or covering it up, hiding it, it becomes impossible to accept the failure. Without accepting failure it is impossible to analyze and adapt. Without this analysis or reflection, it is impossible to learn. Learning is the goal.


Ultimately students learn what they are taught, and this comes primarily by observation. We are teaching students to fear failure. We are teaching students to be prideful. And we are teaching students to do what it takes to "succeed."

It's time for a remedy. Share your failures with your students.

* I have no problem with using other people's properly licensed code. There's no need to reinvent the wheel. I do have a problem with taking code, removing authorship and copyright and telling me it's yours. But I empathize due to the environment that makes one think that this is the only way to "succeed."

Share this post