Learning from "mistakes?"

I’d like to try hands-on labs with my fourth graders, but I’m worried they’ll make mistakes. I guess I’m afraid they won’t learn the concepts if they don’t get the right answers. Is there a way to make the activities fool-proof? I’m a first year teacher.
—Melissa, Murfreesboro, Tennessee
If you scripted the procedures down to minutest details, hovered over the students, and intervened immediately when students were on the verge of doing something differently, you might get everyone to come up with the same correct, fool-proof results. But you’ll be exhausted from doing most of the work, and the students will learn that science is about following directions and watching the teacher. This style of teacher-centered activity doesn’t exemplify the real nature of science as wondering, investigating, questioning, data collecting, and analyzing.
As teachers, we want our students to be successful, but we have to let go a bit and let students work on their own (of course, if anything dangerous is about to happen we must intervene immediately). Science activities can be messy and unpredictable, especially with more than 20 students, but it’s possible for class time to be used productively and with a minimum of chaos.
You could start with a few simple investigations to learn about the experience levels of your students. Try the activities yourself ahead of time to determine what materials are necessary, what safety issues could arise, and approximately how much time to provide. It helps to have or develop class routines for lab activities and to organize materials so students know where to find them.
Two words should guide your own behavior: model and monitor.

Model the behaviors you expect of students: questioning, accuracy, organization, following class routines and safety guidelines, enthusiasm, and cooperative learning roles. Monitor the students as they work, but don’t do the work for them. For example, if you see students measuring inaccurately or using equipment incorrectly, show them how to do it and then watch as they do it again themselves. Ask students to explain what they’re doing before offering your advice. If they are deviating from the procedure, guide them back (or let them go, if they’re thinking creatively outside of the box).
It’s important for you and your students to view mistakes or unanticipated outcomes not as abject failures but as learning opportunities. As I noted in a previous blog, during a fourth grade class I visited, students were investigating the relationship between volume and temperature. They had made their predictions, but as the teacher, Mrs. M., put their data on the board, it was apparent that the results were too varied for the students to see any trends and come to any conclusions. As Mrs. M. tried to think of an explanation, a student remarked, “Maybe we didn’t all do the experiment in the same way.” Other students offered suggestions: they may have read the thermometers incorrectly, perhaps they did not all measure the balloons accurately, or maybe some of the balloons had tiny holes in them that allowed some air to escape. The teacher then joined in the discussion about the importance of controls in an experiment and the value of consistency and accuracy in measurement. When the students asked if they could repeat the experiment, Mrs. M. helped them annotate the procedure with their suggestions so they could try again. After class, she reflected on the lesson. She said at first she was disappointed the activity did not work out as planned, but she was excited about the way the students responded. She concluded that learning from a “failed” experiment was a valuable experience—the students took ownership in the activity beyond getting a correct answer.
I still stay in touch with Mrs. M. and we both agree: if we had a dime for each class in which something unexpected happened, we’d both be in a much higher tax bracket! But the enjoyable experiences with our students are priceless.
Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/elycefeliz/4448688868/sizes/q/in/photostream/

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