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pHail: Learning through Persistence

By Jim Tiffin Jr (Cross-posted on my personal blog, Building Capacity)

“I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that will not work.” -Thomas Edison.

Most educators are familiar with this quote. Most of the time, I suspect it was used to motivate students to “try, try, try again.”  At least, that’s how it was used with me – merely as an encouragement that if I just simply tried more, I’d get it.

In reality, it is much more than that. Learning from something that didn’t work in order to be successful at it later on, takes more than just the effort of doing it again. (That’s actually how some people define insanity! :-)) There is some cognitive “doing” that is also required.

There needs to be a tool that gives learners a conscious prompt for evaluating their efforts – both unsuccessful and successful. It should ask students to consider their discovery work as experiments, and to actively consider all of their results as progress – despite whether or not that result “moved the ball closer to the goal line.”

Additionally, the tool should help change the narrative around a learner’s perception of mistakes (ie Mistakes=Bad). Many teachers are perhaps familiar with the heated discussions around failure, and the mixed messages of encouraging kids to fail. AnnMarie Thomas, author of Making Makers: Kids, Tools, and the Future of Innovation, summarizes these concerns in her book:

Words matter. When we work with learners who are in difficult situations, it seems disingenuous to tell them to be OK with “failure” and then later in the day if they “fail” the math test we hold them back, call their parents, or take away their scholarship. I liken the design process to writing. We never assume that the first draft is the final draft. We know that we’ll iterate and get feedback from users, peers, and others. I have started to say that it’s only failure if you completely give up. Otherwise, it’s just a draft, or an experiment.

It is this last idea, the notion of an experiment, that sparked the genesis of a new term in the MVPS MDE program: pHail.

Since the word “fail” has so much baggage attached to it, even if you consider it as a First Attempt In Learning, we elected to test this new word. There are three driving reasons behind the use of this invented word with a clever “f” sound at its beginning, and each relates to the goals above.

  1. It’s a hat tip to MVIFI’s existing work with chemistry metaphors, as best exemplified in our badging work around the periodic table.
  2. It acts as a reminder to learners to take on the mindset of doing experiments and thinking like a scientist.
  3. pH comes in a scale, with acids on one side and bases on the other. Neither is better or worse than the other – they are just different. This is the perspective that pHail attempts to build in learners: some experiments work, and some don’t… one isn’t better than the other because they all move us forward. The goal is to learn from successful and unsuccessful attempts in order to create both understanding and skill around the product that is being created.

So if a pHail is meant to prompt a learner’s active evaluation of results as a feedback mechanism for learning, what does it look like in practice?

[Student Judgement] In maker-centered learning environments, it isn’t the teacher that passes judgement onto a student as to whether their projects are “right” or wrong”. Instead, it is the project itself that passes the judgement. Here you see a horse created by a student in 3D modeling software, and their resulting 3D print. A person experienced with 3D design and printing would have recognized that the overhang of the horse’s head would have produced some printing “issues” 🙂 But that isn’t the point. Instead, it becomes something for the student to wrestle with by asking “Why?” and “How come?” and “What will I try next?”

[Public Exposure] The #FailUp Zone* was born out of some automata work that MVPS second graders were working on. The purpose was to make learning from mistakes a public affair. Rather than conceal errors from others, their experiments would be on full display for others to see – ones that worked would still be on the board; ones that didn’t work would be piled on the floor where they fell. A sign invited passersby to offer feedback regarding the automata experiments. The students could then see lots of examples of working and non-working projects, and read the suggestions of others, in order to determine their next move. The active synthesis of their observations allowed students to move further and faster towards their end goal.

*Note that the term pHail was not around yet, and instead there was reference to the MVPS Norm of Fail Up. This early experiment around the concept would help shape what pHail would become.

[Controlling Variables] When middle school students were launching paper rockets, the need for keeping track of what was being tested became clear. Did the rocket go higher because of the addition of cardboard wings, or because the chassis was wrapped with painter’s tape? If a pHail is to be learned from, the experiment would have to be thoughtfully planned and controlled in order to compare it to a previous experiment. Their tinkering process becomes less haphazard as their pHails help them evolve that process into one with an intentional structure designed to reach a desired goal.

**Note the evolution of the prompting around pHail as seen in the large yellow notes on the pHail boards. One of our initial ideas was that pHails would be classified as positive and negative, with positive being a mistake you learned from and negative being ones you didn’t learn from. Realizing that all mistakes can be learned from, and that the pH scale isn’t a positive or negative one, helped us modify our next pHail iteration. #failup 🙂

[Troubleshooting] A pHail can be generated from a variety of causes. Sometimes it is the components that a student is working with for their project, and other times it can be the way the project is being assembled and connected. A broken part can be the problem, or the problem might be the way you hooked it up… or it could be both! In order to find out what’s going wrong, students need to be able to troubleshoot;  the persistence around pHails helps motivate that need. The image above shows a great opportunity for students to wrestle with a cognitive dissonance issue via troubleshooting. (What makes it great is that it is an authentic issue from the students as opposed to teacher staged one.) On one side of the pHail board it shows that a blue LED and a white LED can be lit at the same time. On the other side it says they cannot. This contradictory information won’t escape the attention of students as they are consistently looking at the board to see what discoveries have been made, knowing that this will be useful information as they continue their own work. But why did someone get the combination to work, and others did not? Did someone get a bad LED? Did they not make a good electrical connection? Is there a short circuit someplace? Did the wrong type of circuit get built? Is there a battery issue? – too little electricity or too much? The list of possible causes goes on and on, and students can generate that list as they continue their tinkering investigation to find out what is really going on.

Despite having developed the ideas around pHails to the degree that we have, there are still some ideas regarding them that we are looking to explore. For instance…

  • The pH scale has a strength component built into it – values near 0 and 14 are stronger than those near 7. Is there value in having students consider pHails with a similar measurement scale?
  • Students can make discoveries from their pHails year after year, but should they be shared year after year? More concretely, if the students in Class A figured out the right combination of working/nonworking LEDs, should those discoveries be shared with Class B? What is the right balance of learning from generated experience and learning from shared experience?
  • What about the the pHails that occur because of tool failure? A drill bit breaking or filament leaking out around the hot end of a 3D printer, for instance. Where do these troublesome items fit into the learning language of pHails, particularly with a safety component in mind?

I would suggest that in addition to considering these other questions, we might also want to consider starting to share a different quote with young innovators:

“Many of life’s greatest failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” -Thomas Edison.

If we can give learners the right dispositions towards pHails and persistence, we’ll build in them the agency they need to be successful in whatever endeavors they choose.


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