Fighting Fear…with Corn

A few weeks ago, for a completely unrelated

right to be wrong (Copy)
photo credit: Katie Regan

reason, a tweet from fellow #coflipper Katie Regan caught my attention. In the background of the picture she posted was a poster with the words:

School is the Right place to be wrong! Learn from your mistakes.

This couldn’t have come at a better time – as I was in the throws of making a major shift in my goals as a teacher.  The catalyst for this change was a combination of this poster and our lab work. Between these two things, bells rang, the clouds parted, and Ba-BAMB! – it all made sense. The words on Katie’s wall were perfect – they summed up exactly what I had wanted to convey to my students, and immediately has become my new mantra. This is what my classroom and my students need: a place to promote higher order thinking/problem solving without fear – BUT, if they don’t believe the words on the poster then I will be a long time reaching that place. 

I began to notice the need for this change the more time I spent with my students in the lab. Just before Katie’s tweet arrived on my feed, my students had just completed a lab I have done for a number of years in our advanced program: the genetics of corn and the use of chi-square analysis.

I love this lab. It is a great use of real life data to explore inheritance, and in some (albeit) weird way feel like I am channeling Barbara McClintock in my little corner of the world. It has a bit more spice to it than just doing 87 punnett square problems on worksheets (I know you bio teachers out there know what I am talking about…I mean, seriously, there are only so many of those a kid can do). Students observe corn from the parent generation and from the F1, and they are given a cob representing the F2. From this they are to figure out a possible inheritance pattern and collect raw data from their F2 corn cob, and then use a chi-square analysis to determine if their data fall within acceptable ranges. Basically, I am trying to show my students that there is a way to statistically know if you are ‘close enough’ to be right. (Check out the lab sheet here if you want more details!)


Data collection in this lab is all about counting each kernel on the cob, and as one student put it in the opening of his conclusion: ‘This lab was a real pain.’ (a little too subjective maybe, but I saw his point). Ok, so there is a touch of tedium in this lab (yet still way better than 87 extra punnett square problems), but even before they got to this point my students needed to figure out what they thought the inheritance pattern might be and create their hypothesis. They were on their own to solve this puzzle, which I figured they would dig it because I was giving them some freedom, but they flat out resisted. They wanted the answer; They wanted to know what to do and how to do it; They wanted to know exactly what I wanted, and I looked them straight in the eye and gave it to them – a whole lot of nothing. I had ‘cut the cord.’

And then I saw it: fear.

It was like being hit by a ton of bricks: They were afraid – not so much about the task… they were afraid to be wrong.

Not only were they afraid to guess the inheritance pattern wrongly (even though they have at this point a really great understanding of some of the major ways we inherit our traits), they were afraid to even write anything that may be incorrect in their lab books. The big part of this lab is they have to show their thinking ‘out loud’ in their lab book; the rights, the wrongs, the maybes. All of it. However, as I worked my way from group to group, I noticed that many of my students were trying to work out their ideas on separate pieces of paper, and very few were actually writing in their lab books. Observe an exchange I had with one of students as I witnessed him feverishly working something out on scrap paper:

Me: Hey, why don’t you put all that in your lab book?

Student: Because what if I’m wrong?

Me: Well, then you are. (very confused look from my student) Then you try something new. What makes the most sense in what you see? Use what you know. Put it all down in your data section.

Student (hesitantly): OK… (proceeds cautiously to writing in his lab book)

And this was a common exchange with my students for the next hour.

This fear was visibly stifling their thinking – limiting their ability to critically problem solve what they were seeing. They were missing the big picture, and were only focused on the I-must-find-the-one-answer-she-is-looking-for mentality, refusing to put anything down unless I had confirmed that they were right. And here I was – not telling them a thing, but guiding them to experiment and feel comfortable about the process. I was hoping they would try to identify reasons their null hypothesis wasn’t accepted if that was how it worked out; to explore the delicacies and the imperfections in working with living things. Science isn’t always pretty, but it sure is fascinating – and I really want them to see that verses ‘did I get it right?’ (especially with their independent research project gearing up to start…)

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not expecting my students to do cartwheels if they don’t have the right inheritance pattern (and PS – many were able to figure out what was going on with the corn), but I do hope for them to work through the process before they come running for me to tell them what to do. The failures and wrongs of science propel further science. It drives innovation and inspires new questions – why didn’t it work? What if I changed this? Will it work in another species? And yet, I have a few students who border on panic attacks when they can’t figure it out perfectly the. first. time. Where is the fun in the discovery if that is the case?

Since flipping this course, I have focused heavily fostering greater collaboration – both for myself (I adore my PLN) and for my students. We have WSQ discussions over the content where my students group together to work through the meaning of the topic covered in the vodcasts. We have finally arrived at a place where they are comfortable with each other, so why aren’t they comfortable to work out their ideas – all their ideas – with each other?

The epiphany I had following this lab and seeing Katie’s poster is to conquer this fear in my students. I want them to see my classroom as a place where they are safe to try things and feel comfortable (but not content) to be wrong. The idea is to use being wrong as a tool on their exploration process. From here, we can work towards the deeper thinking that problem solving generates.

I am at the stage right now where I have more questions than answers, but I will work to figure it out and combat this fear in my students. What I do know is that the only way for my students to trust and believe in the words on that poster is to strive for  an environment where my students feel open enough to be wrong and work towards the right answer. I also have to let go of some of the very straight forward, never-fail, labs that are counter productive to inquiry and problem solving, and build in labs that promote ‘out of the box’ thinking.

Once upon a time, we all had a crazy sense of curiosity and wondered ‘why?’ for everything (and were sometimes relentless till we were satisfied with the answer). We weren’t concerned with the right answer before we even tried. So what has changed? Somewhere between the ‘why?’ phase we all went through and the time I see them in my classroom, many of my students have lost this wonder and have become fearful because it might not be ‘what the teacher was looking for.’

I want my classroom to be the one that rediscovers the curiosity in my students. I think I always have wanted that, but since the collision of the corn lab with Katie’s tweet, I now feel that I have a vision to make it real.

“I believe that all children have an inner scientist within them, and we need to get them in touch with their inner scientist again.” Ainissa Ramirez, Save Our Science2013

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