As many of you know, over the past nine months, my husband and I have completely gutted and rebuilt our 130 year old home, that we loving call Lindner’s Hall. After tearing out 9 tonnes of plaster, lathe, flooring and more dust than you can possibly imagine, we thought “hey, this isn’t so hard.” Turns out, destroying things is easy. It’s putting things back together (and keeping them together) that’s hard. It’s frustrating, messy, riddled with failure. This is the story of how building my house reminded me of what it means to be a learner.
Electrician’s Daughter: Not Knowing Where to Start
There have been many, many times during this process when we have stalled because we didn’t know what to do. For someone who learns quickly and generally experiences very little stress, these stalling points were incredibly frustrating, but also gave me insight into how my students must feel when they encounter unfamiliar situations.
The first time I encountered this was when I decided to rewire the house. As you would expect, I had no idea what I was getting myself into, and it became so overwhelming that just getting started seemed impossible. But, with a little research (thanks to the book Electrical Code Simplified) and some encouragement from an authority on the topic (thanks to phone calls with my Dad, a master electrician), I was able to make the first move, and suddenly it didn’t seem so daunting anymore
I am reminded that there’s a good chance that when students are “procrastinating” or “wasting time” they are actually, frustrated, overwhelmed, don’t know what to do, or just need some encouragement from someone who does know what to do. As part of the Ontario curriculum, we are required to assess student’s abilities to apply information or skills in new situations. So, how can we help them to overcome the anxiety and face unknown situations with calm and confidence? In Allison Harding’s (@aharding) recent blog post, she has done some excellent research on the topic of Positive Education and developing a toolkit for students, which sounds like a great place to start.
The Bathroom: Fear of Failing
One of these stalling points for us has led us to a situation that some (most) people would call deplorable. That is, that we have been living in our house for 8 months without a working shower. While the upside of this is that I am forced to go to the gym every day, the downside is well, obvious.
I realize that in this case, the stalling comes from the fear of failing. I built this up in my head to be such a huge risk that whenever I did have the time to get started on it, I would get frustrated and avoid getting started. Fortunately, my favourite form or procrastination was reading and watching YouTube videos on the topic (thanks TileMasterGA). It turns out, there WAS a lot I didn’t know about building a bathroom (Did you know that you can’t use paper drywall tape in a moist environment? Or that there’s a product called Red Guard silicone waterproofing that you paint onto walls?) Finally, this week, I decided to take the plunge and get started. And I have failed many, many times.
But, I am reminded that the fear of failure often prevents our students from learning. And that in order to help them learn better, we need to build an environment in which they are not afraid to take the plunge and learn from their mistakes. Learning from failure has become a buzz topic in education and business over the past several years, with everyone from J.K. Rowling to University professors extolling the power of failure.
As I kill time on Instagram while the thinset mortar is curing, I see my colleagues and friends enjoying beautiful vacations in sunny destinations. I recall last March in California, running a marathon and drinking champagne on the ocean. And I sit in my bathroom floor, close to tears, realizing that I have cut the drain pipe too short and it won’t connect to the shower drain. How could I be so dumb!? I beat myself up and feel like I’ve made a huge, unfixable mistake.
I am reminded that when students encounter failure, it can be hard for them to see past their mistakes to learn from the situation. Also, students are often compelled to compare their experiences to their peers. Which is why Assessment As Learning, or reflecting on what/how they have learned is such an important tool for helping students get past their mistakes. Celeste (@ckirsh) has been focusing on building growth mindsets in her students, through blogfolios, self reflection and video analysis. If you haven’t read her posts, it’s a great place to start learning about how to build confidence in students when they approach new situations.
Home Depot: A Case Study for Microaggressions
After my moment of desperation passes, I realize that there’s always a solution, if I have the right tools for the job (Jessica’s @jlindsay students might be able to help me pick them out). So I go to HomeDepot, where I encounter the usual, casual sexism: “We usually get the wives in looking for parts for their husbands to fix the toilets on a Sunday, not a Tuesday” says the man in the plumbing aisle. Given my exasperation, he’s lucky I don’t kick him in the shin. Instead, I smile and tell him that I am re-plumbing my bathroom while my husband is at work. All I need is a 2″ to 1.5″ ABS bushing, please and thank you.
This reminds me to be careful about casual comments and assumptions that we can make about our students. It’s hard to remember that although we can control the environment of our classrooms, we don’t always know the context that our students bring to various situations. At the Klingenstein Summer Institute last year, we heard an excellent lecture from Dr. Derald Wing Sue on Microagressions, or casual forms of racism, sexism, classism, ageism or oppression. It’s important and relevant research for all teachers to understand. Here’s a copy of an article that summarizes his lecture.
Design Thinking: Plumbers Have Been Doing it for Centuries.
I come home with a pile of parts and a new tool, ready to conquer that drain pipe. After much trail and error, testing different solutions for fixing the drain, collaborating with my husband, and deciding on a path to move forward, we now have the drain installed and (fingers crossed), it won’t leak. This process might sound familiar…identify the problem, brainstorm solutions, trial and error, build a prototype…here is the Design Thinking process in action. Plumbers have been using it for centuries, but not calling it by name.
I am reminded that learning doesn’t always have to be demonstrated in a test or a written paper or by students atomized into working on their own. Sometimes, the best thinking happens when students build something, as a team, overcoming failures, judgements, and stalling points and finally reflecting on the process. One book that greatly influenced my teaching during my studies at OISE was a book called Spectacular Things Happen Along the Way by Brian D. Schultz. His project-based, social-action oriented approach to teaching became the inspiration for my approach to teaching from day one.
In my classroom, I have found that Design Thinking is a great way to encourage students to take risks and not be afraid to fail. In my Grade 11 Green Industries course, students are faced with the challenge of solving the problem of our unsustainable food system. After much research into the problems with our food system, students empathized with users that they identified and ideated solutions. Most of their solutions are for users to grow their own food, and so they set about building indoor hydroponic or aquaponic “farms.” These projects are messy, neither they nor I often don’t know the right answers, and they are riddled with failure. Students face unfamiliar situations (as the daughter of a tradesman, I’m shocked by the number of 17 year olds who have never used a drill) and are forced to try things that might not work. But in the end, they find confidence with each small victory and learn to problem solve with each failure. And they get to know a little bit about plumbing along the way…