Beyond Fear, There Is Only Sky

Michael Ralph

Every year, on a hot afternoon in August, I find myself at the center of a whirlwind of excitement. A group of children chaotically scramble to reach a goal for which they have only a cursory appreciation. Some children appear more gifted than others, but almost all are enthusiastic and have raw adrenaline-charged energy. Gone is the teenage disinterest that often seems so difficult to shake. There is only a need to act, even if each child is only dimly aware of what that action might be.

At its essence, science is a discovery process. Through all the mistaken conjectures, failed inventions, misinterpreted data, rejected hypotheses, and frustrated retractions, our field maintains a culture of creation. There are times I marvel at the dichotomy between how we as scientists perceive our profession and how we experience it. A study with 100 trials and a single successful attempt is published as a resounding success. The experimenter recalls the adrenaline rush of the positive result, and the other 99 trials are seen as triumphant evidence of how not to create the desired result.

Failure is a pathway to success. Indeed it is the only pathway to success. Deliberate practice and reflection is a forge that crafts failures into robust knowledge. A scientist must feed the machine with attempts, revisions, and improvement. Students, on the other hand, are trained from an early age to fear mistakes. They experience education as an assembly line; each student passes through their career like a widget on a production floor. Even some of the most high profile enrichment programs provide exciting experiences, but those experiences are scripted and predefined for the majority of participants.

So I return every August to a new group of young people conditioned to learn responses to my prompts. They are programmed to flee each opportunity for failure, else they bear grade deductions and corrections for failing to reproduce exactly the response I expect. My first order of business in all of my classes is to thoroughly and completely reject such a premise. This year I started one class asking them to reproduce natural water filtration. They had very little context and I certainly didn’t define a way to assign points or a due date. Their only way forward was to take a risk. In the last days of class they still remember that first day as a shocking and formative experience, when they were forced to take risk and confront uncertainty in a way they never had before.

The students resist initially. Nearly all want to know the rules or request guidance toward the right answer. My more advanced students in AP Biology and biotechnology often struggle to let go of the need for concrete direction. But there is always one. I can name most of those students going back several years because they always stand out and signal the beginning of something great.

The first student who thinks, “Okay, fine. I will try.” And they begin tinkering. They request materials. They reach their first glorious failure, and the reaction I give! “How wonderful that you have identified your first need for revisions.” Others join in. Nothing bad ever happens. There is never punishment. A worksheet is never distributed. So more want to play.

And eventually the room is abuzz with chaotic exploration. Things break. Organisms escape. And students take control. They understand the nebulous nature of their goal and are comfortable seeking whatever they may find in their wandering. What is most important is that all students are capable of exploring in this room. The advanced students work alongside those enrolled in remedial classes. Anyone can create an advanced class and allow accelerated students to continue being accelerated. Our job is to help new students grow to this place of scientific freedom.

There is a tyranny in STEM education right now of selection for the most dramatic and complex. Too many assume only the few people who were playing with junior chemistry kits at age two are able to excel in STEM endeavors. While the most advanced students who have been practicing for years deserve support and praise for their impressive accomplishments, it is equally important to grow a love and appreciation for scientific practice in students new to the field. A senior art student, a junior football player and a freshman novice learner all have something valuable to offer in the science classroom.

The same attitude applies to advanced courses such as my AP Biology and biotechnology courses. I was guilty of seeing students struggle in the first weeks of years past and thinking, “They need to get out of this class before they fail.” A few lucky students will enter my classroom already understanding the value of struggle. The majority have absolutely no reason to expect that their earnest struggle will lead to their success in my classroom. They have an abundance of evidence that it won’t. My job is to help more students grow to meet my expectations for conducting science.

So I have purpose in my career. I cherish the memory of each moment when another student comes to understand the agency they have over their own work. One student started her own research inquiry which continues to this day, and she still offers mentorship and guidance from college. Another student started his own 3D printing business as a senior using the experience he gained during his high school years.

My job is to model for students what they can accomplish through trial, struggle, and growth. The most important thing we teach students is not any single topic, but when we teach them how to explore an interest. I want to show young people the freedom they have to craft their own story. My developing citizens need neither permission nor institution. Each student must only find a goal worthy of their determination and seek it. I want each student to leave my classroom and empowered individual ready to explore the world around them through productive struggle.

Michael Ralph teaches general biology, AP Biology and biotechnology at Olathe East High School in the Kansas City, KS, area. He is a graduate of the UKanTeach program and focuses on inquiry instruction and the impact practice has on skill improvement. He is an author of Biology Rocks! and works to promote inquiry methodology around the country through professional development and collegial collaboration. Contact him on Twitter @ralph0305 to exchange ideas and become better professionals.