There’s something almost sacred about playing a game that’s been essentially unchanged in 5000 years, as go has. There’s also something humbling and punishing – and maybe even something sacred - about beginning to play it seriously in your forties, as I have. I say there’s something sacred about it because in order to get good at either chess or go, you have to lose – a lot. You have to lose much, much more than you win, and you have to constantly open yourself up to being challenged by losing even more. You lose to people who are jerks to you the whole time they’re winning against you, you lose to people half (or, in one instance, a quarter of) your age, you lose to people who have spent less time playing go than you have, you lose to people for whom winning against you doesn’t mean much when winning would mean a lot to you. You’ll lose when you’re already having a bad day and when you’re depressed, you’ll lose when it shakes your confidence, you’ll lose on a day when you’re sure you’re weakening in life and not strengthening. You’ll lose when you’re not sure you’re ever going to get better, and it makes you wonder why you’re even still playing. Since August I’ve probably lost probably five hundred games of go, and that’s being conservative, and I’ve won a much, much smaller fraction. Failure is something I’ve had to accept. Realistically, unless I gave up the game or wanted my mental health to suffer, there is no other choice.
This process has improved my empathy for my math students, many of whom have to make a great many mistakes, question themselves.
If you candidly ask people what they believe about where meaning comes from in the human experience, they’ll say we find meaning in suffering and in sacrifice. While I wouldn’t say that losing a board game is the same as failing a course I would say that many of my students, at the minimum, open themselves up to suffering by taking one of my math classes, and this is something I need to honor and respect.
This is, I believe, one of the most helpful rewards of athletics or competition – learning how to fail well. If you listen, it will teach you about the nature of growth, of self-actualization, of shared experiences … because everyone has failed. When I think about my role in this process, it should be 1) to decouple suffering with failure if it leads to learning; 2) to make sure the right lessons are learned from failure. This has led me to rearrange my teaching style a lot:
1) Unlimited Retakes on Homework and Tests. In my experience students see tests as the end of the journey, not as the beginning or as a signpost. Most students will be understandably discouraged from reviewing material if they know there’s no chance they’ll ever see it again – or if the next time they’ll see it is months away. Unlimited retakes is a logistical hurdle for me, and it definitely increases my grading a lot, but I believe offering them is in line with who I want to be as a teacher. Most students also tend to see one-shot opportunities as being less informative than if they were given opportunities to try again and learn from their mistakes.
2) Demonstrate, and reward, my own failures. I’ve certainly had teachers that became very personal, and very angry, when they were corrected or challenged on what they had taught. Their response always seemed to turn the class adversarial – like their sense of being The One That Always Had The Right Answer was critical. I don’t always have the right answers, and I don’t think I can or should always have the right answers – because sometimes I make mistakes.
My way of dealing with this probably isn’t for everyone: what I tell students is that I will purposely make mistakes on the board from time to time, and if they catch one I’ll put a mark on the board. If they catch me making 3 mistakes in class, I’ll let them out early. Sometimes I will purposely make a mistake, and other times I won’t – either way, it’s a demonstration that everyone makes mistakes, and what we can do is to not let them bother us too much, because we can fix them.
I also talk about my own failures as a student, and even as a teacher. I let students challenge their grading and, if they have a point, I’ll give it to them. Again, it takes more time, but I think it’s worth it.
3) Debrief After Failure. Not surprisingly, in a Developmental Math class, this can happen often, but making sure I frame failure as an often necessary step in the process of learning is critical. I’ve had teachers that chastised me for not doing homework and not studying enough after failing a test. Their hearts may have been in the right places – but did they think I didn’t know that? My hunch is that every student knows they need to study and do work to pass, and pretending that telling them that is going to make them realize something they didn’t before doesn’t seem like it will work. I try to tell students things that will keep them around for the long haul – that they have the opportunity to go back and try again after they’ve learned, that as a human they’re going to make mistakes, and that it won’t affect their long-term academic trajectory … but giving up will.