Falling is not failing.

Educating people in science means you traffic not only in facts, those memorized bits of knowledge about the stages of mitosis or gravitational attraction, but also in the practices of science, too. After all, science is as much about habits of mind such as quantitative reasoning, evaluating others’ claims, and communicating ideas as it is about our current factual understandings. More than anything, science is a way of thinking that encourages revision based on new findings - a way of thinking that’s paramount for successful adulthood.

    If you want to help develop these habits of mind as a teacher, you’ve got to help students learn to communicate verbally, in pictures, and using charts and graphs. You’ve got to get students to design, conduct, and analyze experiments. You’ve got to design tasks that are right at the edge of what students can currently do so they can go beyond what they currently know. You’ve got to get learners feedback so they can refine their work. And that refining is the biggest key; to improve, they have to do these things again and again and again, learning from their mistakes.

    All of these situations make student thinking public in a very real way, a way that involves substantial personal risk. One students wrote about our class and said that he quickly found he couldn’t “hide or coast; what [students] know and can do is visible all the time.” If we ask students to put their thinking out there, to lay bare the details of their intellectual struggles in front of peers and teachers, we have to double down in thinking about how to motivate and engage students to overcome the discomfort of being wrong.

    Stephen Traphagen, a science teacher in Illinois, and I started talking a few years ago about what this process looked like in our classrooms. We quickly realized that keeping students motivated and engaged in challenging, rigorous work means designing tasks and creating contexts where students experience safety, agency, and interest. When we can give students all three experiences, we transform how students perceive failure: from a permanent reflection of their intelligence into a worthy and useful learning experience.

    I vividly remember the first time I realized the power of safety in my own learning. High-school me missed scarcely a point in a full Advanced Placement course load, won a free ride to college, and showed up feeling prepared to start her biochemistry degree ... but then badly failed her first chemistry exam. She eventually slunk to the professor’s office and bawled for a good 10 minutes while the patient gentleman on the other end of the table held a tissue box. I had no previous experience with my intellectual performance being anything less than exemplary.

    Here’s what I know now: falling is not failing. That upset kid at office hours picked herself up, listened to the feedback she was given by that kindhearted professor, tried some new strategies, and graduated as a chem/biochem double-major with honors ... and, eventually, earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry. I am grateful that I got the opportunity to struggle intellectually, and overcome that struggle, early in my adulthood. From that point forward, I’ve felt brave, secure in my capacities in a way I never did through 13 years of gold stars.  

    As a teacher, you have to make your classroom fit your values. I knew when I started teaching that the high schoolers entrusted to my care would taste both struggle and subsequent success, and I’m still learning how to encourage intellectual risks in a safe environment. My details might be different from the ones you work out with your students, but there are four features that have been important in my journey.

    First, students and I focus on the process of working together. We develop codes of conduct, we practice giving constructive feedback, and we check in explicitly on process as class unfolds. I am very clear about my requirements that we are all respectful, responsible, and reflective, and I offer many low-stakes corrections early on. By the time students have to display their thinking in potentially vulnerable and high-stakes ways, the vast majority of them trust that their colleagues and I will respect their thinking and offer help for improvement.

    Second, I offer opportunities for revision, right from the start of the class, woven throughout the work that we do. The mechanics aren’t as important as the attitude: I’m going to reward you for looking over your work, taking feedback, and improving.

    Third, students shouldn’t fail if I’m to blame. I believe my students should never experience failure because I haven’t checked in or because a task has flaws I hadn’t anticipated. If you’ve worked with students to co-construct your class culture, they are even likely to tell you a task is broken or ask for specific help well before helplessness sets in.

    Finally, and most importantly, you have to show students that you too are taking the same kinds of intellectual risks you expect from them. Be excited and transparent when you introduce a new activity, and acknowledge when things don’t go as you expect. Let students see you taking notes on their performances and conversations as they engage in a task. Explain your reasoning when you ask them to do tasks that seem overwhelming, and take it seriously when those tasks remain overwhelming for longer than you’d anticipated. Ask earnestly for student feedback and input, and show your students explicitly how you are taking their feedback into account.

   These four practices help my students and me create an educational space where kids can feel safe enough for the work that makes them really scientists: the iterative practice that blends science content and science practices authentically and with rigor. Students are going to fall sometimes, but I’m trying to help them see ways forward and possible next steps to success. I’d like to think there are still gold stars in my classroom, but now they’re not final decorations on a job well done. Rather, we award them together to recognize triumph and for the valor it takes to persevere.


Kirstin Milks teaches at Bloomington High School South in Bloomington, IN, where she learns with and from AP Biology and Earth/space science students. She is a senior fellow of the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation, a former Woodrow Wilson Annenberg Fellow, and was recently named a National Board Certified Teacher.