Take the Pressure Off to Take the Pressure Off: Lindsey Cermak


    This is a truly timely talk as the excellence vs perfection debate has been brought up to me in my practice. Thinking about ways to take the pressure off of teachers and getting them to think about how to take the pressure off is worth exploring. Thanks Lindsey for your excellent talk.

      Yes! It is not only about what the students need to do to be successful, but about us as teachers – how we set the tone and expectations. I am still learning in this area!

    Hi Lindsey,

    Great talk! One good resource I’ve used to get my class started on having a culture that values mistakes and failure as learning experiences and indications of brain growth is videos from youcubed.org. Seeing Jo Boaler, a more impressive figure than I, talking about the value of mistakes and failure has made a big difference to my students. One even commented, “you can’t fail if you don’t try,” and she absolutely meant it in a positive way, knowing that failure means we are stretching ourselves and that we and others can learn from our struggles.

    Once I had a student tell me she didn’t want to present her work at the board until she was sure it was right. I told her, “If you get it wrong here at your seat, you’ll learn from it. If you get it wrong at the board in front of everybody, we will all learn from it.” She agreed to get up and present and proceeded to make a fantastic mistake that opened up great conversation for the whole class.

      Hi Sarah! I like the idea of having students hear the message about the values of mistakes and failures from Jo Boaler. I also love that quote you mentioned – “you can’t fail if you don’t try.” If we experience failure at something, then that means we are stepping out and trying. The idea that our work not only matters to us but others is powerful. I want to share that with my class!

    Dear Lindsey,

    I have been thinking a lot about your talk since I first heard you give it in April.

    I once asked an HSE math class what it mean to be a good student and they told me things like: Come to class on time, Never give up, Listen to the teacher, Learn from everyone, Someone who asks a lot of questions, etc. Then just to see what would happen, I asked them, “What does it mean to be a good math student?” and their answers changed to things like: Someone who knows the formulas, Someone who solves problems quickly, Someone who knows their multiplication tables, Someone who answers all the problems, etc. So basically, they all had one idea of what it meant to be a good student – one that I would mostly agree with – and a very different idea of what it meant to be a good math student, which they basically defined as someone who already knows how to do everything. Without getting to much into growth/fixed mindsets, I had a class of people who defined themselves as bad math students (or at least not good math students) because they have math to learn. Which is all just to say – pressure is intense.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about how to be more vulnerable with my students and how to model authentic mistakes, which I see as opportunities for growth. I’ve also been thinking about how I develop the perspective and vocabulary for those discussions with students on fear, success, and failure. I definitely talk a lot about mistakes (“Mistakes are expected, respected and inspected!”) and I think that is helpful, but I’ve been trying to identify concrete things I do to share, and to hear more about how other folks are working on this stuff in class.

    Towards the beginning of every semester, I love to read the Duck and the Moon – a fable by Leo Tolstoy. It’s very short . <<>> In the past I’ve used it to have a group discussion about our prior experiences (Have you ever felt like the duck? Has anyone ever felt like this in school?), our new community (What can we learn from the story? What does this story have to do with our class? What does this story have to do with learning?). A new question to add is “What does this story have to do with fear, success and failure?”

    Have you ever heard of the instructional routine called, My Favorite No? (http://www.collectedny.org/2015/03/my-favorite-no-a-great-way-to-celebrate-student-mistakes-in-math/). I’ve done it with students, but usually just a few times over the course of our time together. I wonder what it would be like if I made more time for it. My new thinking about instructional routines is that the strength lies in doing them often and over time and giving students time to reflect on them. My Favorite No seems like one that can connect to both content and to shifting that perspective on stepping out.

    One final thought I had in response to your talk is how I respond to student mistakes in class. What I do now is very different from when I first started teaching. When I first started and a student answered a question incorrectly, I would move on to another student, and keep going until someone gave me the right answer. I did it because I didn’t want anyone to feel badly about getting the wrong answer and I didn’t want to “confuse” anyone with erroneous thinking. But then I’d realize – ok, five students had to get that wrong before someone got it right and that is not a good. I also realized that by not drawing out anyone’s reasoning, I had no idea where the mistakes where coming from. If I was going to address them, I’d need to know more about my student’s thinking. So there were a lot of reasons why I started to change my practice away from “answer-getting” and asking students to explain their thinking, whether they got the problem right or wrong. And it completely transformed the character of my classes and my teaching. I realized that by moving on to the next student, I was discouraging students from stepping out, and I was missing out on the opportunity to show them the actual way in with we learn from mistakes, which is by thinking about them and analyzing them. Students really were more willing to make mistakes in front of each other and ask questions, and learn to value their reasoning – both correct and incorrect.

    What concrete classroom practices are you all trying to be vulnerable, model mistakes and frame failure/mistakes with the proper perspective?

    Thank you so much for this really inspiring and thought-provoking talk, Lindsey!

      Here’s the text for the Duck and the Moon:

      A duck was once swimming along the river looking for fish. The whole day passed without her finding a single one. When night came she saw the moon reflected on the water, and thinking it was a fish she dove down to catch it. The other ducks saw her, and they all made fun of her. From that day the duck was so ashamed and so timid, that even when she did see a fish under water she would not try to catch it, and before long she died of hunger.

    Thanks for all of these ideas! Asking students to define what a good student is and then separately what a good math student is seems like a great way to address their erroneous thinking.

    I have never heard of “My Favorite No”, but I really want to try it now after seeing the video! I agree that if done as a regular routine, it could definitely impact the culture of the classroom and the attitudes of students over the long haul.

    I have never read that fable, but I want to read it with my class now!

    I like the way you consciously do not skip over answers until you hear the right one, but accept any answer as worthy of investigation.

    Figuring out ways to change our routines and regular mode of operating in the classroom so that it’s conducive to risk-taking will create an atmosphere where students’ thinking begins to change. It takes time for that to happen, though, that’s for sure! So many of my students walk in with a negative mindset about themselves and their capability of learning. Again, thanks for all of these ideas! It encourages me to keep growing in this area!

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