Turning a Teaching Failure into a Teaching Moment — from the Chronicle of Higher Ed.

Total Fail: It Happens http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/total-fail-it-happens/30640
By Heather M. Whitney

Be careful what you wish for. The other day, my husband, who is also in science, and I were talking about what qualities of a scientist we hope to model for our students as a part of our everyday interactions with them. High on our list was the ability to acknowledge that sometimes we’re not always at the top of our game. We don’t go around describing nature in perfect equations. Science, like all disciplines, is the pursuit of characterizing and understanding the as-of-yet unknown. It’s a process, not a life of looking up answers in a solutions manual.

Guess what happened the very next day in class? I was teaching my general physics course, covering (what I think to be) a very fascinating study in where an electron will be as it approaches a negatively charged sphere, at the point when the velocity is half its original value. (Trust me, it really is interesting.) On the board I modeled the problem solving approach for the students, talking about conservation of energy and how it motivated the solution. I came to next-to the-last step of the solution, the mathematical equivalent to a joke’s setup for the punchline. And it was gone. I mean, GONE. For whatever reason, I completely lost track of what to do. My notes were no help, because of course the final steps were crystal clear during my prep and I did not feel the need to write them out. After all, this is the fourth time around I’ve taught this course, right?

There were about ten minutes to go in class. I swallowed my pride and made the decision to end class a bit early, with the promise of opening up the next with the finished solution. There were of course many options I could have taken, such as letting the students work in groups to finish up the solution and then comparing options as a class. In my best moments, I would have even created a clicker question on the fly so that students could vote for which proposed solution was the “best.”

But I didn’t. At the time, I felt it was best to just leave it and come back to it. And that’s what happens in the life of a real scientist. Sometimes we get stuck. We don’t know what steps to next take and we leave the problem for a bit – get a cup of coffee, stare out the window, read some email. Sometimes we even lay problems aside for days (or weeks or years!) Then we come back to the problem and attack it some more.

Two days after, the next class period, I had a brief discussion with my students about how that situation mirrored what often happens in real life. We want to model for our students what we think is the best of being in our field – the beautiful solution to a problem. But we need to also model for them how to handle challenges, and part of that is maintaining a healthy bit of humility.

Have you ever had a total fail during class? How did you handle it? Did you get any student feedback? Let us know in the comments.

One Response

  1. This is a great reminder of what a MATURE teacher does. As Sparrow, Hess and Schwartz remind us in their book Teaching Law By Design, students respond more positively to the teachers concern for their learning and forgive “mistakes” by caring teachers. I think I truly became a good clinical teacher when I was able to discuss with students my lack of knowledge of the “right answer” and my concern about making a misjudgment. I was introduding my students to the fact that much lawyering is about learning the law needed for the situation and making difficult decisions when one doesnt’ know the answer or when there isn’t any apparent one answer.
    On the other hand, I do note that there is risk involved in discussing vulnerability and imperfections or in asking for assistance from students. A number of my younger female colleagues have discussed with me the gender differences that have an impact on what they choose to do in the classroom. When female professors describe missteps or ask for student “help,” law students are more likely to view their teaching negatively, to question competence and/or the abilitty to “control the classroom.” These colleagues note that, in contrast, students view the male professor who is self-deprecating, or who invites student assistance, as infusing a human touch and do not view these moments as demonstrating a lack of competence or ability. I too remember experiencing this contrast in my earlier days of teaching and as I gained seniority watching students underestimate my skilled and brilliant female colleagues or misunderstand the use of innovative teaching approaches as an inability to teach the “real way.” Are these concerns relevant still today?

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