Special Report
Student Well-Being

Students Learn to Fail—and Recover—at Calif. School

By Sarah D. Sparks — June 02, 2014 7 min read
Seniors Absadi Kidane, right, and Rafael Rodriguez compare active vs. resting heart rates in a class on anatomy, physiology, and disease at Da Vinci Science High School in Los Angeles.

Many students at risk of dropping out enter high school already behind on credits and with a history of academic struggle. Some educators say, however, that teaching students to “fail productively” and recover may do more to help them succeed in the long run than a high-pressure crunch to recover credits.

From mastery-based grading to productive-failure instruction, educators and researchers are experimenting with interventions designed to shift students’ attention from meeting external achievement targets to setting, and meeting, their own learning goals.

Mounting research suggests students benefit from classes organized to encourage them to try challenging new tasks and bounce back from failure, but schools are still grappling with what such a classroom looks like in practice.

“Learning from failure is very intuitive, very compelling,” said Manu Kapur, an associate professor and researcher at the Learning Sciences Lab at the National Institute of Education of Singapore, who studies productive failure. “The real challenge for me is, if people learn very well from failure, from mistakes, why do we wait for it to happen? Why can’t we design for it? If you allow students to learn better through failures, perhaps the long-term failures, you don’t have to wait for them.”

Studying the Struggle

In one series of experiments, Mr. Kapur and his colleagues gave 8th and 9th graders in Singapore data on baseball players and asked them to find the most consistent hitter. In one group, students were taught about deviation from the mean and how to approach the problem, while in the experimental group, students were left to first generate solutions to the problem on their own and fail productively before the teacher taught any new concepts.

The researchers found students in both groups learned how to solve the problem in the standard way. However, students who were allowed to struggle with new problems on their own first were better at evaluating different variations of the problem and using different methods to solve it, and they showed deeper understanding of the underlying mathematical concepts. In observations of the classes, Mr. Kapur said teachers “consistently underestimated” students’ ability to muddle through to answers on their own.

Coping with failure can also help students develop what noted Stanford University psychologist Carol S. Dweck calls a “growth mindset"—in which a person believes that intelligence or skill is a product of effort, rather than inherent, unchanging ability. Such thinking has been shown to improve a student’s likelihood of graduating from high school, going on to college, and succeeding in work and other life outcomes.

Principal Steve Wallis greets students at the front door, a morning ritual at the school, which uses a mastery-based grading system to encourage student persistence in learning.

For example, in a 2012 study of 1,500 students at 13 high schools across the country, Ms. Dweck and David S. Yeager, an assistant professor of developmental psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, found that low-performing students who were given even one lesson about growth mindsets failed nearly 7 percentage points fewer courses than students who did not participate.

Growth in Action

Some schools, such as the 540-student Da Vinci Science High School in the Wiseburn district of the South Bay community here, are starting to see some of the benefits of focusing on growth and productive failure. Sixty percent of Da Vinci’s students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, and Principal Steve Wallis said the school includes roughly equal proportions of white, black, and Hispanic students, as well as students from other racial and ethnic groups. Da Vinci has based its grading system on skills and content mastery, rather than test proficiency. Students demonstrate their knowledge through projects and oral presentations, not just tests, and teachers work across subjects to create weekslong interdisciplinary projects that encourage students to struggle and turn to one another for help.

Junior Jessica J. Mankewitz came to Da Vinci from Richard Dana Henry Middle School, a relatively high-performing traditional school in Wiseburn.

“At Dana, all the smart kids would talk, and the shy kids wouldn’t, and it was just accepted,” she said, noting that she has always been one of the quiet bunch. “Here, I find myself really participating in class. You’re not afraid to be wrong, but you need to contribute.”

Two students work with a robot their team built for a competition in an engineering class at Da Vinci Science High School.

Last fall, for instance, students were asked to analyze how President Theodore Roosevelt survived being shot in the chest by a saloon owner a century ago—and imagine how the country’s political and economic history would have changed had he died.

“What message kids internalize when they struggle is an absolutely essential part of a great classroom climate,” said David Levin, a co-founder of the Knowledge Is Power Program charter network, which is not associated with Da Vinci but is studying methods to measure student motivation. “Things should be hard, and when things are hard, it should be fun. Teachers have to be able to recognize and engage with kids when they have the thought that they got a math problem wrong and it means, ‘I’m a bad person.’ ”

Kevin Hidalgo, an 11th grader at Da Vinci, said he procrastinated a lot at his former school and grew frustrated if he performed poorly early in the year. “In my old school, teachers tended to focus on tests, and it was a one-shot thing,” he said. “I always used to think those who were good at math were just good at math, and here I’ve seen you aren’t just born with it, you have to work.”

For example, Mr. Hidalgo said, “The projects here tend to be complex, and it takes time to do it in a way that demonstrates your mastery and gives you a nice project. Here, you have to learn to manage your time. It’s changed my motivations.”

Engineering teacher Lenny Perez, standing, helps 9th graders Greg Bitzer, left, and Tommy Ramirez, work on a project using computer-aided-design technology.

Part of persuading students to move outside their comfort zone, Mr. Wallis said, is making sure they learn from mistakes but don’t see them as damaging in the long term. Toward that end, the school does not grade tests and other projects using a letter or percentage grade, but gives detailed feedback on whether the student has fully, partially, or not at all mastered specific skills or content.

In addition, students are given unusual options for recovering from blowing a test or a project.

Students who want to improve a particular grade can submit an “error analysis,” in which they summarize the original question, describe the thought process behind their incorrect answer, and then give the correct answer and tell how they plan to remember the content in the future. After the analysis, a student can schedule a retest with different questions that cover the same material.

One morning last fall, about a dozen students crowded outside a classroom, waiting to retake a history test. They didn’t all flunk or miss class on the day of the exam; several just wanted to show they had learned material they might have stumbled over weeks or even months before.

“They’re not arguing with the teacher over points,” Mr. Wallis said. “It takes away some of the time pressure for these kids. In a traditional grading system, it gets harder and harder to change your grade the deeper you get into the semester.”

“Here, the deeper you get in your term, the easier it gets to change your grade. You can always go back and demonstrate that you now understand one of those earlier concepts [that was missed],” he said.

That creates more work for teachers at the end of each term, but staff members get additional nonclass days for grading.

Senior Savannah Letchworth and a classmate work on an elevator they built during an engineering class at Da Vinci Science High School.

“I’ve done it a lot of times,” said Destane Sanchez, also an 11th grader. “It’s really just the idea that I could do better than I’ve done before, so I really should do it. Often, it’s just really simple, easy mistakes—everyone has had a bad day. Everybody learns differently, and that’s what they try to focus on.”

Mr. Hidalgo, the former procrastinator, agreed. “I know what the essential skills are [in a given test], and many chapters can cover the same essential skill,” he said. “This way, I decide whether it’s worth my time to go back and do [a retest] or not.”

Looking Back

Da Vinci also regularly encourages students to examine their academic and emotional growth. At the end of each semester and before they graduate, students must give a talk before a panel of teachers on what they have learned in at least three classes, citing specific examples of mistakes made and problems overcome.

Engineering teacher Lenny Perez, who also directs an “advisory class” to help students plan their presentations, said the opportunity to reflect on their growth seems to help students persevere academically. In 2013, 99 percent of the school’s first full cohort of students graduated from high school—well above the state and Los Angeles-metropolitan-area graduation rates. More than 60 percent of that cohort were accepted to four-year colleges, and another third were accepted to two-year colleges.

“Don’t be scared of it,” sophomore Taj Hester told freshman Andrew Palma during a fall planning session for the end-of-semester presentation. “Be prepared, because the teachers will ask you questions. Don’t just explain it; explain what you did wrong and what you did about it. It can really only help you.”

Coverage of school climate and student behavior and engagement is supported in part by grants from the Atlantic Philanthropies, the NoVo Foundation, the Raikes Foundation, and the California Endowment. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

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