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The Joy of Failing

Tuesday, April 21, 2015 -- Winnie O'Leary

“Kevin Barrios and Saul Soto, both 18, developed a portable solar charging system to charge an electric scooter. The system is designed to be able to provide power in remote locations and to be quick and easy to setup. Kevin and Saul's project was initially focused on creating an electric go-cart, but their plans got derailed when the prototype go-cart was stolen. These young men didn’t give up, using surplus and donated supplies from their community and shifting their focus to build and wire a scooter-charging station. Kevin and Saul completed their project as students at Lighthouse Community Charter School — an Oakland, California, public school serving low-income youth, which focuses on empowering students to design and “make.” Their innovative design was showcased at the Maker Faire.”

-Excerpt from Meet the Exhibitors in the 2014 White House Science Fair

Can you imagine the mayhem that Kevin and Saul rained down on the halls of their school “testing” their project?  Do you think their teacher said, today we are going to build a solar powered go-cart? And after it got stolen, do you think she said “oh well”? 

Imagine a classroom where children try, experiment, and develop.  Imagine they are doing math, science, social studies, and English language arts all while developing a way to provide clean water sources for third-world countries.  Can you see that classroom driven by a student’s desire to create, not limited by the “not now” and living only in the “why not”?  Can you see a classroom where standards support students’ learning, not drive it? In that classroom, where the student is using the “why not” approach to learning, are they right every time?

If students are afraid of mistakes, then they are afraid of trying something new, of being creative, and of thinking in a different way. Teaching students that failure is an opportunity to learn is a shift in the lens of instruction.  It is unexpected.  The Whitehouse science fair is a celebration of students’ abilities and by extension, a teacher or parent’s willingness to support failure.  Using the opportunity in failure, not to freak out, but to cuddle up with it and learn from what it produces, is a challenge.  Embrace it.

How are we accomplishing this? At its core, at its most fundamental, STEM is about failing; or as Thomas Edison said “….I have found 10,000 ways it doesn’t work.”

The “invention factory” of Thomas Edison expresses the fundamental process of STEM.  Edison realized the importance of experiments and created an environment for experiment and inventions.  Edison had many interests, which led him to conduct many different types of experiments and ultimately invent many things. Eventually, this factory became his Research and Development lab and today every Fortune 500 company has a department devoted to failing. From here we can extrapolate that the STEM philosophy of trial and error is a powerful economic driver.  So let your kids fail--it is good for the economy.

Teachers can and are embracing STEM and project-based learning, and through that are serving as facilitators of failing (and succeeding).  They give students time to choose, design, explore and create. They get out of the way of the process, but support every step.  They provide scaffolding, guidance and strategic instruction, but ultimately they know to get out of the way of failure, celebrate it and then build on it. 

It is messy.  The teacher is the architect of failure as well as success.  There has got to be some time and some leeway given to following the wrong path.  It might reveal something completely unexpected; an end result that was never considered, but now we can’t imagine living without. There is value in failing because it leads us to the alternative path that might not have been obvious in the first place.

Winston Churchill said it best: “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” So remember, failing is a gift, it is a souvenir of useful lessons learned. 

Would you like to know more about STEM standards in your states? Check out this article from eClassroomNews. You can also check out this brochure to learn more about Edmentum’s solutions for STEM education.