Collaborative Research: Debugging Failure: Fostering Youth Academic Resilience in Computer Science
Situated within the Advancing Informal STEM Learning program, this Research in Service to Practice award seeks to design, implement, and evaluate an intervention aimed at fostering a culture of productive failure practices. The project responds to a broad concern in educational research and practice: Experiences of failure are frequently so negative that students shut down, lose agency, and develop low self-efficacy and learned helplessness. Surrendering too quickly to obstacles is particularly unfortunate, given evidence that initially "getting it wrong" ultimately breeds deep and sustained learning. In order to learn how students can make the most of productive failure, the proposed project will study how a community of practice that includes middle school youth and their mentors attempts to change its handling of learning obstacles. Building on prior research documenting storytelling practices in an afterschool program, the team now aims to embolden young students' productive practices of failure storytelling in computer science, a field in which experts practice candid, pervasive, and collaborative discourse around errors ("bugs").
Pulling together the domains of narrative analysis, meta-cognitive reflection, and control theories of motivation, within the context of authentic computer-science debugging activity, this study develops a theoretical framework that views productive responses to failure as a discipline-specific process of reflecting as a community on how to locate obstacles, how to construct causal theories about why those obstacles emerged, and how to plan productive responses. A design-based research approach will investigate three questions: (1) What is the impact of the interventions on students and instructors' actions and discourse when they are debugging errors in computer code? (2) What is the impact of the interventions on students and instructors' reflections back on their prior debugging experiences and on failure in general? and (3) What is the impact of the instructor-development efforts on the instructors' capacity to foster students' productive attitudes toward failure? The study focus will be 15 summer and weekend coding workshops with 5th-8th grade students from populations typically under-represented in STEM. The interventions are (a) setting new norms and practices for debugging, (b) instructor education, and (c) coding software that provides students with feedback on their productive struggle. Data sources include video and audio recordings of the learning environment, artifacts produced during the activities, and semi-structured interviews. Measures will capture variations in debugging activities, reflections on debugging, students' ideas about grit and growth mindset, and instructors' struggles and successes with the new curriculum. The empirical results will consist of mixed-methods, micro-longitudinal accounts of how a community of practice works to reform its orientation to failure.
The products of this work include empirical knowledge, theory, and curriculum about how learning communities help students develop robust and efficient responses to failure. These will be disseminated through journals, open-source software, and workshops/conferences for researchers and practitioners working with youth afterschool programs. The products may be useful for exploring practices in the classroom. This project is being conducted by the 9 Dots Community Learning Center, UCLA and UC Berkeley.
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