Learning from Failure

Today I learned a little bit about failure. For the past couple of weeks I've been working with our Sci-Tech Club at school on a STEM-Fest project. For this project students got to pick any sort of scientific principle and make a video to demonstrate it. We had groups doing tornadoes, volcanoes, diet Coke and Mentos, and a handful of others. One group of boys decided they wanted to make a Chinese lantern. Now if you're not familiar with a Chinese lantern, it is essentially a paper or plastic bag that you turn into a hot air balloon. The boys did their research and the scientific principles behind it and crafted their first prototype. In the video below you can see the complete and utter failures of the first set of prototypes and how none of them achieved any sort of actual lift or flight.

As we were testing one of the prototypes in the gym one of the young men had an idea. He knew it was the hot air that made these things fly. He then thought that maybe they needed more of a contrast in air temperatures and that might be best achieved outside rather than inside. This seemed to make sense so we took the Chinese lantern outside where the air was a little bit cooler and you can see the result of that test.


As you can see in the video it was a success and the boys got the Chinese lantern up in the air. What I really like was the reaction they had when they saw it work. It is very rarely you see young men such as these have this kind of a reaction to something in school.

Thinking on this whole process of what the boys went through with the failures in trial and error to get to the final product it made me think about some things. First off, I respect the fact the boys didn't give up. How many of our students would have given up after the first attempt that nearly burned a hole in our gym floor? The other thing I think about is do we provide students with enough chances and enough opportunities to fail and to learn from their failure without judgment? Are they able to constantly fine tune and change what they're doing. These boys were able to work through problems and work different scenarios and settings and problems and solutions and figure out what worked and ultimately succeed in the project. What you didn’t see in the video was their changes to the size of the bag, the weight of the fire starter and position of the “carriage”.

I am fairly confident that while the boys were super happy with the final product of the floating lantern, I feel as though they will appreciate it far greater by having failed and gone through that process than if they had gotten it right the first time. I am left wondering if we provide enough time and opportunities for students to fail and learn from it in school.

18 comments:

William Chamberlain said...

Would they have bothered to keep trying if it wasn't 'their' project to begin with? I find students accept poor grades rather easily because they don't care if they actually learn what we want them to.

PrincipalJ said...

Wow, the moment when they started jumping was priceless!!

DebbieFuco said...

Love the jumping! I felt like jumping, too! I agree with William, it was 'their' project, therefore, they were invested in the outcome. In addition, they were given the 'time' to continue to modify and make adjustments, which is so important when encouraging and nurturing an exploratory nature. Thanks for sharing!

Shawn White said...

First, that is fantastic! I am happy for your students and you to experience such authentic learning. I have come to believe we have too many missed opportunities for failure in school. I work with mostly the highest needs students. I have witnessed too many students pass through who had, not too much support, but sometimes the wrong kind of support, the kind that did not allow for small failures and the growth that comes from them. I fear this sets these students up for bigger, more harmful failures later on, when our safety net is not there.
Lots to say about this topic... Anyway, that is great, and again, I am glad to have read and seen this.

Bill Ferriter said...

I totally dig this, Stump -- but the one thing that I kept thinking while watching was, "That cycle of tinkering -- of trying and failing and refining and trying again -- is so damn time consuming that I'll never get through my curriculum in time."

#thatswarped
#thatsreality

Can you tell I'm walking the moral tightrope again -- juggling what I know is right against what I'm actually held accountable for?

#sucks
Bill

Katy Smith said...

Oh the joy! Thanks for sharing the story with us at Princeton. It was great just to have heard it but today, to watch those happy boys on the video.....

Anonymous said...

This goes along perfectly with a conversation I had at P/T conference tonight. Our current education system deprives our students of the most valuable component of learning, failure. We teach our kids it is not acceptable to fail even though in life, our toughest, most valuable lessons we learn and use are mastered because of failed attempts. I would love to push this more in my own classroom, but unfortunately I am with Bill. Because of high stakes testing and accountability, there is little time for failure, especially when your classes include thirty plus students. Any suggestions on sticking to my principles while keeping my job would be greatly appreciated!!

To Bill:

#reallyreallysucks!!!

Will Savage said...

Great information and post. Learning from failure has so many positives for the learner. Thanks.

BebbPEteach said...

Hi Josh,

Great post - please follow the link to my whole school presentation on 'why success always starts with failure' a long with explanations of each slide.

The link is to our school's new teaching & learning blog 'Lookout for Learning'. Would love to hear your thoughts on it....

http://lookoutforlearning.wordpress.com/2012/10/05/why-success-always-starts-with-failure/

Thanks
Matt

Stephanie said...

First of all, I think it’s great that your students didn’t give up after experiencing failure. It’s wonderful to encourage students because sometimes the most meaningful learning comes from failure. I completely agree with you that schools today do not allow students many opportunities to fail and learn from that failure. At the school that I work at we have a policy known as “failure is not an option.” Students are required to retake assessments if they are failed, and must serve detentions to make up missing work. I struggle with this policy for a few reasons. If students never have an opportunity to fail and revise their work, how are we preparing them for life when there are many opportunities for failure? At the same time, how do we adjust rigid curriculum to allow for opportunities for students to make this meaningful learning occur? I agree that we should make time for these opportunities to occur in the classroom. Failure doesn’t have to be a bad thing, as teachers we can create very positive outcomes from it.

Kristen said...

This post was very inspirational, especially the video clip. It was great to see how determined the students were to get the lanterns to fly. Their determination served worthwhile as seen through their jumps of joy, facial expressions, and overall excitement of successfully getting their lantern to fly. They didn’t seem to get angry and most certainly did not give up at any time during the process. Reading your blog and watching this video reminded me of a quote that I actually first heard from the movie Summer Catch. Jessica Biel stated in the movie, “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly”. Students will never know how great they can be or how well they can perform unless they are willing to try, regardless of the outcome. If students never failed at what they were doing, then they would never truly know the feeling of success. Therefore, I completely support your idea of giving students time and opportunity for failure so that they can learn from it. I believe that teachers do not do this enough. However, I do still ponder how they could find time to do so as well.

Kristen said...

Kristen said...
This post was very inspirational, especially the video clip. It was great to see how determined the students were to get the lanterns to fly. Their determination served worthwhile as seen through their jumps of joy, facial expressions, and overall excitement of successfully getting their lantern to fly. They didn’t seem to get angry and most certainly did not give up at any time during the process. Reading your blog and watching this video reminded me of a quote that I actually first heard from the movie Summer Catch. Jessica Biel stated in the movie, “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly”. Students will never know how great they can be or how well they can perform unless they are willing to try, regardless of the outcome. If students never failed at what they were doing, then they would never truly know the feeling of success. Therefore, I completely support your idea of giving students time and opportunity for failure so that they can learn from it. I believe that teachers do not do this enough. However, I do still ponder how they could find time to do so as well.

October 23, 2012 8:04 PM

Nick said...

I really enjoyed this post. I completely agree with you that we may not give our students the time to fail and learn from their failures. I believe that this is an essential tool that all students need. They need to know that failing is not really a bad thing, you just figure out a way not to do something. Students now believe that failing is so bad and that if you fail then there is no chance of doing better. We need to make students aware that failing is ok and if you fail you just have to fix somethings and try it again.

Nick said...

I completely agree with this post. I do not believe that we give students the opportunity to fail and learn from their mistakes. I think students need to fail so that they understand what not to do and what is not going to work. We also need to make it clear to students that failing is ok and that they do not need to worry about failing. Just because you fail does not mean you are bad at something it just means that you need to go back and fix some things and get it right next time.

Mandy said...

I agree and disagree with your last statement. The part that I agree with is that you're right in asking if we allow students enough opportunities to try and fail and then learn from the failures. However, the part I disagree with is that this should take place in the classroom environments. I personally feel that this is something that needs to start at home and with society overall as a whole. So many times all you hear about are the negative things and bad news on almost every single broadcast. There is no emphasis on the positive events that take place. I feel that this then translates into the home and our students are not allowed to 'fail' and then learn from their mistakes. Students can't fail at school, at sports, or at various other activities. This then translates back into the classroom where teachers don't want to have failing students because it's not acceptable at home, etc. When I was kid and playing softball, if I failed at learning a new pitch as a pitcher, I didn't get a pat on the back and an out to start working on something else. I fixed what I was doing wrong and worked hard at it in the process. Nowadays, society places so much emphasis on the negative that no one wants to experience failure because they are allowed an 'easy out' rather than encouraged to find a different route to the same answer that the students are seeking. I feel like if society can change their views on failure and families can change their views on failure and see this all as a learning experience, it will make it easier to provide more opportunity for students to learn from failure at school as well. But I feel that this needs to start at home THEN move into the classroom.

Jeff B said...

I do not think that this is exactly learning from failure. The students did not fail, rather these students continued to problem-solve in a situation where opportunity presented itself. Of course, trial and error is the technique they used, but I do not believe that because the first effort did not result in immediate success their efforts should be considered failures.
What good teachers do is provide the learning opportunities, remove restrictions that existed previously (i.e. my science teacher years ago would have most likely laughed if we requested to move outdoors to attempt an experiment) and encourage different ways of thinking and problem solving.
While failure is essential to students to understand and experience I do not believe this example provides a true sample of failure. While I understand this blog is intended to provide a brief synopsis, I am interested as to the amount of input, or lack thereof, the instructor offered. I am interested to understand the process the students took to reach their goal.

Samuel Krhut said...

Great post! I loved the video. It is so rewarding to see our students' reactions to accomplishment!!

Gretchen Schultek said...

learning from failure- isnt that when the best learning takes place? you'll never forget it will you?

Thanks for sharing!

Always A Lesson