February 6th, 2009

Learning from Mistakes


I read two articles last week in which faculty described teaching experiences that did not go quite as well as expected. In one case a math professor opted to teach an entry-level remedial math course. He knew the teaching would be challenging, but with 25 years of previous teaching experience and a newly minted Ph.D. in math education he thought he would be up to the task. The teaching turned out to be way more challenging than he expected and challenging in some surprising ways.

In the second example two faculty members designed a unique course that explored how some childhood icons (Barbie dolls, proms and the boy scouts) can reinforce gender stereotypes. They expected some student resistance but not the flat-out rejection and animosity that the course content engendered.

Both articles are well written and fascinating to read. They offer examples of how students resisted learning and showcase how faculty successfully and not so successfully responded to that resistance. But I don’t think that’s the real value of either piece. I think their merit as pieces of pedagogical scholarship derives from how these faculty critically examined a pedagogical experience and tried to learn from it.

Too often when things go poorly in a course or even for a day in class, our response is emotional. We get upset—with the students, with ourselves. We moan and groan about how hard and unpleasant teaching can sometimes be. But we don’t often sit down with a cup of coffee (or a glass a wine) and try to sort through the experience in terms of what we might in a logical, rationale, cool-headed way learn from it. When you read articles like these, you see how writing about the experience increases the potential of learning from it.

There’s a certain risk involved when a teacher writes for public view about what didn’t happen well in a class, but their courage benefits the rest of us a great deal. We regularly tell students how much can be learned from mistakes and things not done well, but how often do we heed that advice when it applies to us and our teaching?

References: Khazanov, L. (2007). When the instructor must take the back seat. PRIMUS, 17 (2).

Quay, S., and Damico, A. (2006). Stories of boy scouts, Barbie dolls, and prom dresses: Challenging college students to explore the popular culture of their childhood. Teachers College Record, 108 (4), 604-620.

—Maryellen Weimer