In our Saturday webinar with Kerry Tracy from Feel Good Teaching, she touched upon the topic of failures. While teachers may have the impulse to save kids from feeling failure and disappointment, failure —especially epic failure, where everything falls apart— is a valuable teachable moment for our students. When students fail and are given strategies and opportunities to recover from failure, they gain resilience and persistence.
Experiencing success after a failure builds confidence and lets students know that it’s not only okay to try new things, but it’s okay to fail at them the first time, because eventually, they will succeed. This practice is the embodiment of a growth mindset. Meaning, growth mindset students know and believe that their skills are flexible. When they try something and fail, they know they can improve on their next attempt.
On the other hand, children with a fixed mindset believe their skills are innate and they are either naturally good at something or bad at it. When they attempt something and fail, they perceive that they are bad at that thing and that there is no point in trying again. If students never encounter failure until high school or college, they will be afraid to try something new because of the fear of failure. At this stage, failure can erode confidence and generate fear because they haven’t built up the skills to persist through failure toward success. Hence, nurturing a growth mindset in children involves giving them opportunities to work through failure.
In STEM, failure is part of the investigative process. Authentic science means experiencing and learning from multiple failures before designing to success. Scientists, engineers and other STEM professionals go through multiple experimental variations and designs before they find a solution. Thus, experiencing failure as part of the scientific process, and being given the opportunity to work through that failure is a crucial part of doing science and engineering. It helps students understand that failure really isn’t as bad as they may perceive it to be (like in this picture!).
Facing Epic Failure
In our webinar, Kerry talked about Epic Fails in the classroom and how hard it can be for teachers to deal with STEM lessons that fail completely. For instance, the room shuts down because everyone is so frustrated, all the designs fail, or kids are off-task because they have no idea how to start. First of all, this happens in science and it is okay. In fact, epic fails are better than okay, because students will be more open to figuring out how to recover from this failure.
So how do you come back from an “Epic Fail?” First, resist the urge to swoop in and rescue your students. They will not learn anything if you step in and “fix” the problem for them. Instead, back up and consider stopping the lesson there for now. You may need to do more informal assessments about your students’ prior knowledge and their needs. Hold a whole-class discussion where each group shares their struggles and can express what they may need for support. Collect their ideas on how they can work through the challenge. This gives kids opportunities to think through and troubleshoot for themselves.
Next, tell your students that you will do the lesson again, with the consideration of their feedback. It is very important for students to know that they will try again after they have had time to reflect, do research, and redesign. Perhaps you do the challenge again in two weeks. In the meantime, remind students will have opportunities to try again, so that they can naturally think, process, and plan ways to improve all on their own.
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