Letting students fail is far from fashionable in schools today – so much so that one Edmonton high-school teacher is now at risk of losing his job for giving students zeroes for missed assignments, contrary to school policy.
But at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., mathematics professor Edward Burger does not just allow students to fail. He actively promotes it.
It’s not that Prof. Burger does not love teaching, which he has been doing for more than 30 years, or math, which he calls “beautiful.” But he knows that many of his students do not share his enthusiasm – so, several years ago, he shifted his attention to what he calls the 20 Year Question.
“Twenty years from today, what will my students still retain from my class?” Prof. Burger asks. “It’s not going to be any math formula.”
Math, then, becomes a conduit for loftier lessons inside Prof. Burger’s classroom. “It’s used as a vehicle, as a metaphor, as an exemplar, for how to train our minds to understand history better, to understand political science better, to understand astronomy, to understand art, literature, the world, and ourselves better,” he says.
As part of his unconventional approach, he requires students to assess their own failures throughout his courses, while asking themselves key questions: Are they learning from their mistakes? How did they arrive at the incorrect answer, and what do they need to do to arrive at the right one?
In class, Prof. Burger’s methods manifest in the form of tough love, usually when a student offers an incorrect answer to a problem.
“I’ll just say, ‘Okay, well that’s blatantly wrong,’” he explains.
But what follows is important: “And then I turn to the class and say, ‘Now, why is he wrong?’” A discussion follows, and the student who volunteered the incorrect answer is part of a broader conversation.
In this atmosphere, Prof. Burger says, a bombed assignment becomes a gift from teacher to student – an opportunity to engage in some high-quality failure, by assessing one’s shortcomings and making positive changes. As for the student who chooses to stuff that assignment deep in a notebook, never to be reviewed again, that is poor-quality failure.
At the end of the course, students write essays assessing their own “quality of failure,” which is worth 5 per cent of their grade.
All of this is surprising only when considered in isolation from Prof. Burger’s other antics. In a video posted to YouTube, he prefaces an explanation of improper integrals with a bit of “improper behaviour” to help illustrate his points: wolfing down potato chips and guzzling milk straight from the carton.
Prof. Burger’s methods have earned him accolades, awards and an audience – his recent book, The Five Elements of Effective Thinking, stresses the importance of failure.
After learning of Prof. Burger’s methods, McGill University education professor Jon Bradley says he would consider taking a similar approach in his own classroom – encouraging students to analyze their work the way sports fans obsess over how the struggling home team might do better next season.
“We get all pumped up investigating, dissecting, ruminating about our failure,” Prof. Bradley said.
Regardless of how many supporters Prof, Burger has, though, his greatest obstacle might be the beliefs and habits hard-wired into students at an early age, which leave them striving for perfection by following rules and routines.
“You have to kind of train them to bring them back to a place where they’re basically back in nursery school and kindergarten, where they’re supposed to explore and play,” Prof. Burger said. “To bring them back to that Eden is what you want.”