Sunday, February 17, 2013

Drive Fear Out of the Classroom

Many years ago I was privileged to take the famous four day course taught by W Edwards Deming. Deming is widely credited with turning around the Japanese manufacturing system after World War II. he’s one of the founding fathers of modern quality control. His 14 Points or key principles are at the core of his philosophy for quality. His eighth point came to mind again recently as someone Tweeted about Finland avoiding standardized tests to help create a “fear free zone.”

Deming’s 8th point is “Drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for the company.“ While many people, especially in management, believe that fear is a great motivator Deming did not agree. He believed that fear created an unhealthy environment where people became more concerned with following the rules than doing the right things. It creates an environment where gaming the system to meet artificial or unreasonable metrics becomes a priority over getting real results. Deming was a huge opponent of fear based management.

As I try to teach my students I find myself very concerned about them being afraid. I don’t want them to be afraid to ask questions, to try new things or to go an extra step to learn something beyond my lectures. Honestly the less I can lecture the better in most cases.  The more they feel free to stretch themselves and try new things the better and more they will learn.

There are some mistakes that beginners always make on a regular basis. Students are bound to use a single equal sign for a comparison statement when C-style languages like Java and C# require a double equal sign. Making them feel foolish when they do is counter productive.  Using the wrong data type is a natural error and a good learning experience not an opportunity to degrade a student.

I’ve taken to asking students to let me know when they run into problems so that I will know what I need to do to teach them better. I tell them that in so many words too. Not so that I can fix it for them or point out “stupid errors” but to do my job better. I want students to see me as a partner in learning rather than someone looking to dock their grades for every little mistake.

Deming did not give grades. Or rather everyone got an A. It was up to the student to learn and Deming to teach. Deming did not want students to live in an environment of fear. I don’t have this same luxury – I teach in high school not at MIT and I’m not internationally famous. What I can do though is reassure students that beginner mistakes are not fatal, that they are good for learning, and that school is not a game of the student against the teacher. I expect that less fear will contribute to more learning.


Ed said...

Really good philosophy, Alfred! I like hearing about all your teaching adventures :)

Garth said...

I teach more problem solving than programming in my classes. Problem solving is making lots of mistakes, lots of trial and error to find a solution. Kids have been taught for so long that they should know the solution and regurgitate it (usually math, history) that making them find solutions by just trying something that might be in the right direction is difficult. Problem solving requires lots of original thinking which requires much more work than regurgitation. Overcoming their fear of being wrong the first 14 times they try finding a solution is really difficult. Some just will not work that hard.

Unknown said...

Interesting - this was a major battle for me when I started teaching CS at an all-girls school. Fear was crippling for some of the girls, so ensuring that the environment in the classroom was vital for them to learn. We worked hard to ensure that they had skills before throwing them into new situations, but also worked on building their abilities to take a risk - and saw some impressive results! Now that I teach at a co-ed school, I do recognize that in general boys tend to be more willing to take a risk, but I still work to create a fear-free environment. I don't think that "fear" or "ridicule" are good teaching strategies in any classroom though!