I am a successful failure.

For the past several years, I have adopted a Dare To Fail philosophy for my professional life. Basically this means that I am going to try new methods, push boundaries, and accept that not everything is going to be perfect the first time. But, no matter what happens, I am going to learn something from the experience.

So, for the past 3 months, I have not used a traditional lab in my CP Chemistry classes. We have made fruit punch to learn about Molarity/Molality of solutions, mixed baking soda and vinegar in balloons to learn about Stoichiometry, made sidewalk chalk drawings to learn about Moles, used Cabbage Juice to identify Acids and Bases, and tried to freeze salt water solutions to learn about Colligative Properties. All of these labs were performed before the students learned about a topic so that the lab can be learning experiences instead of just as examples of “why are we learning this?” Inquiry labs are so common in my class that the students don’t even notice when I fail to give them a procedure to follow.

And they’ve all failed. They look really good on Instagram, but overall, I have failed to meet my objective of using labs to teach the material. The students walk out of the lab knowing no more than they did before when they had to learn the material before coming to the lab.

So, what have I learned from all of this?

  • School is focused too much on creating students who can follow rules instead of those that can be creative. If I don’t give them explicit directions, they have a very difficult time completing a lab correctly. In the future, I need to start the year with labs that have very explicit directions and integrate inquiry slowly throughout the year.
  • Students expect me to tell them everything. Often in labs, a student will make a mistake, turn to me, and tell me that I didn’t tell them not to do that at the beginning of the lab. I will point to a particular line in the lab telling them exactly what they accused me of and they will say, ‘but you didn’t tell me.’ I need to get the students to read more and have confidence in their own independence. The teacher is not the sole source of information in the room and that has to be especially true during the lab when my attention needs to be everywhere at the same time.
  • Labs need be seen as the place that learning occurs. Students will perform the whole lab, not understanding anything they are doing, and then look to a “lecture” to find out what they should have learned from it. Labs need to be seen as a teaching tools as much as projects and teacher lessons are.
  • Schools are not teaching kids that there are more than one right answer. ‘Well, what should I have gotten?’ or ‘What should I write in the Observations section?’ These questions drive me nuts because it implies that there is only 1 right answer and if you don’t get it, you are wrong. Science is about drawing conclusions from our observations without having any clue about what’s going on. My observations and your observations might be totally different. If I am not doing the lab with you, how can I tell you what YOU observed? In every lab, I always tell the students I am less concerned with WHAT you got than HOW you got it. Explaining the HOW demonstrates learning.

So, where do I go from here? Well, that’s the toughest question. It is way easier to do traditional labs. I always feel like I am reinventing the wheel when I am creating guided-inquiry labs. But, inquiry is so much more satisfying. Just this week, 2 students finished the lab were working on, and while answering the questions, asked if they could go back to the lab area to test a hypothesis they had. Traditional labs don’t leave room for additional questions; inquiry does. Mixing traditional and guided-inquiry is definitely the best approach, but I need to give more structure for the students during the early parts of the year. I expect too much intellectual maturity from them sometimes and it isn’t fair to them when they just haven’t learned the skills to be meet the standard I set for them.

In conclusion, I am a failure. Nothing is working out the way I want it to. BUT, I have failed really well and, more importantly, have learned much more than if I succeeded.


2 thoughts on “I am a successful failure.

  1. Frank Seigel

    Think of this “failure” of a man:

    — Failed in business.
    — Ran for state legislature – lost.
    — Lost his job – wanted to go to law school but couldn’t get in.
    — Borrowed some money from a friend to begin a business and by the end of the year he was bankrupt. He spent the next 17 years of his life paying off this debt.
    — Ran for state legislature again – won.
    — Was engaged to be married, sweetheart died and his heart was broken.
    — Had a total nervous breakdown and was in bed for six months.
    — Sought to become speaker of the state legislature – defeated.
    — Sought to become elector – defeated.
    — Ran for Congress – lost.
    — Ran for Congress again – this time he won – went to Washington and did a good job.
    — Ran for re-election to Congress – lost.
    — Sought the job of land officer in his home state – rejected.
    — Ran for Senate of the United States – lost.
    — Sought the Vice-Presidential nomination at his party’s national convention – get less than 100 votes.
    — Ran for U.S. Senate again – again he lost.

    But look at how many lives were changed, by a simple man, born in Illinois, who simply signed his name….A Lincoln.


  2. Frank Seigel

    By the way, I agree totally on how you are handling your “failures” and they way you are trying to get your students to think for themselves. When I see college students interviewed on news shows and asked about current and past events, they take strong positions on issues (sometimes) but they don’t have a clue as to what the issues are, from where they came, nor what the ramifications of the outcomes will be. They don’t have a clue from who we fought for our independence, what the Constitution is, or even when Reagan was President. Many of the “great” leaders lead their people to total destruction because the people blindly followed, without having a single thought of their own.

    In the USA, we, to date, have been lucky, because “We, the people…” have been taught and urged to challenge authority and the status quo, because we have had parents, teachers and leaders who have guided us, taught us and challenged us to be more than we believed that we can be. (some of us, anyway…)

    I can only hope that your “superiors” have the guts and foresight to do what is right, and not do what is expedient and safe, and recognize that teachers like you are the future of education.



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