EducationPop Quiz

Pop Quiz: Learning by Failing

I spent an amazing weekend at CONvergence in Minneapolis where I got to be a part of Skepchickcon. The Skepchick network was out in force with several panels relating to science and skepticism as well as  a kick-ass party room. We had lots of discussion about education in the science panels, partly, I think because this was a con where many people were able to bring their children, so education was on their minds.

At one point, some subset of us were discussing the shift in science education towards more experimentation and inquiry. In this discussion, we came upon to concept of failure in education, and how it is an important part of the learning process for children. Even the brightest, hardest working kids are going to, and should, fail at something sometime. Learning to deal with failure prepares one for the rocky road of life and it helps pave the way for better successes down the line. Experimenting with science and engineering, especially within the “maker culture,” where kids and adults can experiment in taking things apart and building new things, allows for failure that can be turned into a very positive experience.

I don’t think I truly embraced the fail in my own education for a very long time. I tended to get upset and avoid those things rather than learn from them. One good experience, however, sticks out in my mind. Unsurprisingly, it was related to astronomy. I designed an experiment at some point in early high school to determine how the elevation of an astronomical object affects how well it is observed. I chose counting sunspots as my measurement tool, probably because it lived in light-polluted Staten Island. I knew nothing really of seeing or atmospheric distortion, but I suspect that’s where my mind was heading. I set out to observe the Sun (SAFELY, using projection) at noon and in the evening getting high and low elevation measurement. I quickly learned my mistake, unavoidable due to the time of the school year that our science fair was: that from that latitude, the sun doesn’t get very high in the sky in winter. Though my project was basically a fail I learned something pretty interesting about the different placement of the sun in the sky, something that very few people are aware of without careful observation. I ALSO learned not to use a cheap telescope to observe the Sun for weeks on end, since the glue holding the optics in place got all melty.

What was your favorite/best/most unexpected moment of fail in your education? How do you encourage moments of teachable fail in your students or children?

The Pop Quiz is a question posed to you, the Scholars of Doubt. Look for it to appear Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 3pm ET.

Featured image by Alun Salt on Flickr.

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Nicole

Nicole

Nicole is an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at a small liberal arts college. Her home on the internet can be found at One Astronomer's Noise.

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