DEBUGGING FAILURE

"One of the American midfielders,
I think it was Michael Bradley, made a bad pass.
A lazy, diagonal pass.
One of the Turkish players picked it off.
Now Turkey’s on the attack.
They’re moving down the left side, they’re moving the ball in.
I’m thinking to myself, This all began with a bad pass.”

— George Vecsey (quoted in Grantland)

 

When significant events happen, whether good or bad, we devote countless hours to understanding why they occurred. This happens publicly through newspapers, film, and television and personally through private thoughts and interpersonal dialogue. Gottschall‎ (2012), in his book, The Storytelling Animal, lightheartedly refers to this process as Sherlock Holmes Syndrome. We create stories that explain the outcomes in our lives, reasoning backwards. Studied under the umbrella of attribution theory in academia, these stories determine how hard we work, how much we persist, and what we do differently in the future—a suite of factors that influence motivation.

Debugging Failure in Computer Science

Through an NSF-funded collaboration between 9 Dots, UC Berkeley (Dor Abrahamson), and UCLA (Noel Enyedy and Francis Steen), our team of teachers, software engineers, and researchers is working to foster a proactive, creative, and resilient debugging culture in weekend and summer coding workshops for underserved elementary and middle school students new to computer science. We are designing our curriculum to encourage students to struggle early and synthesize their thinking later. The goal is for students to attribute struggle to causes they can manage through storytelling with tutors. We are building productive failure practices into the school's learning culture to frame struggle as routine and deserving of creative and thoughtful reflection. We are studying whether these coding experiences productively impact how students think about failure, grit, and growth mindset. 

A PixelBots emoji created by an instructor at 9 Dots.

A PixelBots emoji created by an instructor at 9 Dots.

Routing around moments of struggle in math tutoring

Some of my work focuses on what happens in natural conversation when students encounter and work though difficulties on math homework with the help of tutors. What do students blame, what chances do they think they have of succeeding, what do they try next, and how are these thoughts organized in sequences of conversation turns with tutors? Below, a tutor catches a mistake, points it out in the visual field, describes the flow of events up to the sticking point, and then hands the floor over to the student.

 

DeLiema, D. (2017). Co-constructed failure narratives in mathematics tutoring. Instructional Science. DOI: 10.1007/s11251-017-9424-2. (link to full article)

DeLiema, D. (2014, June). Attributions and epistemology in conversation: How math tutors and students co-construct accounts of failure and knowledge. For ICLS Doctoral Consortium. In proceedings of the International Conference of the Learning Sciences, Boulder, Colorado.

DeLiema, D. (May, 2013). How Do You Know You're Bad at Math? Epistemic Dialogues at an After-School Program. Talk given at the UCLA symposium on Global Transformative Learning: Building Institutions and Changing Minds.