We Are All Works In Progress

Moses Rifkin

What is the most important thing we can teach our students? How to convert between units. Because, you know, there was that Mars orbiter that got lost that one time.

I’m kidding, of course, but with a purpose: As science teachers, I do think we let ourselves get boxed in by our content. When I’m not careful, I find myself thinking of my job in terms of how it includes the content that will most help my students to make sense of, find wonder in, and navigate the world. I get this image of my students, all grown up, reading a newspaper and understanding the science-related things they read, nodding sagely.

All of these outcomes are perfectly wonderful, of course, but I think they’re thinking too small.

I became a science teacher because I loved science, and I loved the idea of getting paid to talk with kids about science. Maybe (probably), through talking with me, they’d learn to love science as much as I do. Because science is the best!

With every year that I teach science, though, I find that I care less about the material I’m teaching and more about the bigger picture that our shared experience is a part of. By bigger picture, I mean really big: the way my students feel about themselves; the way they treat other people; and the way they view the world and their role in making it better. If you were to transcribe the dialogue in my classroom (or, I think, any of our classrooms), it would look like we were talking about unit conversions. What I try to think about, though, are the ways in which we’re also talking about how to be in the world.

So, with all of that said, I’ll finally answer the question: The most important thing we can teach our students is that it is OK to be a work in progress. I would choose this over the newspaper daydream. (Though, in reality, I think I can have it both ways.) When I picture my students walking out of school after taking my classes, this idea is the thing that I most want them to have learned.

When I talk to my students about how we’re all works in progress, either explicitly or implicitly, I get the sense that they’re uncomfortable with the idea. We all live in a culture that tells us that the goal of learning is to be done with it and, by extension, that if our students aren’t done learning then they need to hurry up and get there. How many times do our students respond to mistakes on assessments with disappointment, rather than recognition or resolve or even enthusiasm? Yes, I know that sounds incredibly naïve; that’s kind of my point: A mistake is disappointing when you think it reflects some failing on your part. Even the widely popular idea of “grit” seems to suggest that making mistakes is something to be endured or survived, instead of embraced.

I hope this isn’t just moral windbaggery: I honestly feel like our cultural emphasis on getting things right often stands in the way of continued learning. I don’t think we can say that we want our students to be “lifelong learners” without helping them see that mistakes are both inevitable and fantastic opportunities. If we want our students to embark on that journey, we’d better give them some tools and perspective to survive and enjoy it.

I also think that, in order to teach them this most important thing, I also have to help my students learn other important things along they way. They learn that they actually are works in progress, that they have more learning to do and always will. They learn that this learning is worthwhile and, I hope, something they will keep choosing. They learn that other people around them are also works in progress, which brings kindness, empathy, and a sense that we are all in it together.

This all sounds good, but what about those unit conversions? Seriously, my job description is Science Teacher, not Life Coach. How do I help my students to view themselves – and others, and learning, and the world – differently while I’m teaching them science content?

I think I already am, and the only shift is to be a tiny bit more intentional about the messages I’m sending. So I spend a little bit of time before I hand back quizzes talking about how they might view what they see. I give them small opportunities to reflect on their prior work before they start a new assessment, giving them chances to practice this way of approaching themselves. I thank students for asking questions and celebrate students when they make mistakes. I try to practice what I preach by showing them summaries of the feedback that they’ve given me at the end of terms and talking about the changes I hope to make as a result. I hang signs in my room that say “everyone learns differently” and, at the front of my room, “If you ask a stupid question, you may feel stupid. If you don’t ask a stupid question, you remain stupid.”

I don’t mean these examples to suggest that I’m an enlightened teacher but, rather, that these are the small things that I view most important. I love demoing physics concepts or helping a student see the relevance of Newton’s Laws or whatever. But what feels most important to me is when I see a student make a mistake, learn from it, and feel good about that process of getting smarter. Those are the moments that feel most important.

So when a student makes a mistake doing unit conversions in front of the class, we laugh and talk about what that mistake can teach us all: What it taught that student, what it taught her peers, what it taught me about how my students understand (and do not understand) conversations. And then we move on, a little smarter and, I hope, a little more willing to make and learn from mistakes in the future. I don’t expect that my students will ever be super-excited to make mistakes – though a teacher can dream – but I’m hopeful that helping them embrace those mistakes is the way I can make their lives and our world a better place.

Moses Rifkin is a high school physics teacher and Ultimate coach at University Prep, an independent school in Seattle, WA. He is especially interested in the overlap between science teaching and social justice. He tweets at @RiPhysKin, occasionally and inadvertently appears on Fox News, and lets his students run his class Instagram account.