Teaching Opinion

Rog Lucido: Forgiving Learning: Reform Begins in the Classroom

By Anthony Cody — April 06, 2013 5 min read
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Guest post by Rog Lucido

It seems like education is on a never ending quest to be ‘reformed’. The message continues today: ‘American students are behind those of many countries. Our dominance of military and economic strength is on the decline. We are losing our competitiveness.’ The root cause of this supposition is laid at the feet of our schools by the corporate world. With many studies demonstrating that 80 to 90 percent of student achievement is due to factors outside of school, how can we consider changes in our schooling as the solution to our business problems?

If we are to improve student engagement and learning, not for the sake of greater profits, but for the sake of our children, we need to start in the classroom. It is here where the rationale should be changed from other-centered to student-centered. Each student comes to us with their own unique personal history. But they all share a common humanity and are in possession of a human brain. This brain is the organ for learning -- not their liver or spleen! If we understand how the brain’s neo-cortex works we will have a way of designing the classroom and school learning experiences to be brain-friendly. In schools we should not develop a learning system and then expect that all students will find learning accessible. Rather, we should seek the healthiest way to cooperate with brain functioning in learning and the best way to extract information from it.

We know the brain operates at peak efficiency when it is free from threat, when the relational tone in its surroundings are supportive and when food and shelter are sufficient. The brain is a pattern seeker. It wants to ‘connect the dots’ in any learning experience in or outside of school: “If I do this then the most plausible result will follow.” It anticipates the future based on past results. It is continually experimenting, learning from its mistakes and stores those results in expectation of the next opportunity to try.

I once took my five children to a local lake which had a rocky shoreline. No sooner than they had exited the van did they run to the lakes edge. There was a buoy about thirty yards from shore. For over an hour they picked up various size stones and tried to hit the buoy. They rarely did. But they persisted. When they came in for lunch I told them that I was impressed with their desire to hit the buoy and asked them why they were doing it. Their answer to a person was, “It was fun!”.None offered an ‘excuse’ for missing nor did I suggest any. I told them I would like to join them at the shores edge after lunch and record their hits and misses. They did not want me to do that. They told me it would take all the fun out of it. You see, they had accepted misses as part of their rock throwing process. Every throw had an excuse for missing but none was expected and none was given. They rejoiced whenever they got a hit.

In baseball a good hitter batting .300 gets a hit only 30% of the time. When he makes an out excuses could abound: “I was fooled.”, " I swung too soon.” “I swung too late”. There is a lot of failure in baseball. Why do they still keep coming up to the plate? Each time at bat the player has another opportunity to have learned from their mistakes and improve. They have accepted failure as part of the batting process. They make their reasons for failure, their excuses, the motivation for progress. It is part of the game:

“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost more than 300 games, and 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. Throughout my life and career I’ve failed and failed and failed again. And, that’s why I succeed.” -- Michael Jordan

This is one of the major problems in our schools. We spend much of our time recording hits and misses and subvert the natural learning process. We do not make processing of mistakes the centrepiece of the experience. One of my sons is a structural engineer. He tells me of the many times he must submit his renderings to his superiors and fellow engineers for review. He says they come back ‘bleeding red’. He must repair his errors and resubmit over and over until they are correct. If not done properly the building could collapse. People’s lives are at stake.

The common protocol for the classroom from kindergarten to university is for students to submit their work, where they are ‘graded’ and recorded. Then they go off to the next assignment oftentimes oblivious to what should have been understood, but focusing on the grade or score they received on that assignment or test. And so it goes over and over again, embedding in each student’s brain that learning from one’s mistakes is not the core value. They learn well that the resulting score on each assignment and the culminating grade is what is really important.

So how can Forgiving Learning (see Educational Genocide-A Plague on our Children) become part of the classroom environment? Begin by reducing the number of assignments. This will provide an opportunity for students to resubmit their work and for the instructor to evaluate it so that the final result is an assignment that is completed up to the teacher’s standards of performance. Students are to redo their work until it is done satisfactorily without penalty, no matter how many times it is resubmitted-their errors are forgiven. They do not have to worry about being penalized but just focus on mastering the concepts. Use the same process on tests, quizzes, projects and the like. They are given the opportunity to master the concepts or procedure until it is done properly.

Have you ever attended the rehearsal of a performance or a team installing a new athletic play? Does the ‘coach’ watch them then walk up to each individual with a grade or score and then leave? Or do participants do it over and over until they have mastered the scene or play as the coach tells each one with words what they are doing right, what they are doing wrong and how to improve? They do it over and over without penalty until the coach is satisfied. This encourages persistence -- a critical life skill.

Our students need to be given the freedom to learn from their mistakes in the classroom environment. The classroom protocol must have forgiveness of errors with the opportunity to reengage as a fundamental element of its process. Education needs to wake up and teach to the human condition. Our children’s lives are at stake.

What do you think about embedding ‘Forgiving Learning’ in the classroom?

Horace (Rog) Lucido, now retired, taught high school physics and mathematics for over thirty-eight years as well as being both a university mentor and master teacher. He is the California Central Valley coordinator for the Assessment Reform Network and cofounder of Educators and Parents Against Testing Abuse (EPATA). He is the author of two books: Test, Grade and Score: Never More, 1993, and Educational Genocide: A Plague on our Children, 2010. He has written numerous articles on the impact of high-stakes testing as well as presenting workshops on Forgiving Learning.

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