Learning from Failure – through games and rockets

iSchool has identified a list of Social and Emotional Life Skills that are essential to success in the 21st Century.  One of those skills is the ability to accept, embrace, and learn from failure.  As adults we know that failure is important to growth and change.  But in schools and as parents we want children to get it right.  However, there is a large body of evidence – from “brilliant blunders” of famous scientists to academic research on hard tests – that says that failure and mistakes are essential to learning.

This 2009 Scientific American Article says it nicely: “People remember things better, longer, if they are given very challenging tests on the material, tests at which they are bound to fail. In a series of experiments, [researchers] showed that if students make an unsuccessful attempt to retrieve information before receiving an answer, they remember the information better than in a control condition in which they simply study the information. Trying and failing to retrieve the answer is actually helpful to learning.”

As a teacher of enrichment courses, teaching failure is a bit of a challenge! Common internet wisdom encourages teachers to use mistakes on tests and assignments as regular inspiration.  We don’t have tests!  iSchool for the Future also emphasizes hands-on learning.  So how to teach about failure without tests and in a hands-on way?  This has been one of our curriculum development challenges.

Last week I wrote about one such lesson that we developed that worked well – the “Idea-thon vote” where the “loser” actually ended up with the most ideas (and the most consolation candy).  This week I tested another lesson.  This one was set up as a quiz, with a twist.  Students who answered a question correctly received one piece of colored paper with the correct answer on it.  Students who answered incorrectly received two pieces of colored paper – one telling them that their answer was incorrect and why and another piece of paper with information about the correct answer.  Each incorrect answer garnered the recipient twice the information – and simulated the actual scientific process in which scientists learn from incorrect hypotheses. The hands-on element came from making little mounds from the colorful paper pieces and using scissors to cut them up.  The student who got the least correct answers ended up with the most information – and the students did see this clearly at the end of the game.

The failure game used colorful strips of paper.

Our next attempt to embrace failure incorporated elements of Design Thinking, with particular emphasis on the steps of testing and evolving.  I asked the students to draw a rocket – that would not work!  They shared designs and came up with a list of features to avoid.

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IMG_0584 List of bad design features

We then set out to make bottle rockets (powered by baking soda and vinegar) that would work.  For some, this meant fixing rockets from last week;  they had not worked because of the items they had listed (gas leaks).  Of course there was fun had in testing the rockets.  Failure was both teacher and motivator.  Students ran back and forth between the indoor design area and the outside launch area fixing and testing rockets.

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There were times when I had to let the design process do its work – and hold my tongue.  One student included a design feature that I knew would not work.  Of course I was tempted to simply tell her it wouldn’t work – but in the space of a few minutes she saw it for herself.  She was disappointed for a fraction of a second and then excitedly ran off to fix the problem, calling out possible problems and solutions.  It was a nice example of Design Thinking in action – with testing and evolution leading to better solutions.

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