You know it’s been a while away from the blog when this post has been sitting in your drafts for months and it features only pictures of last year’s students! It’s been quiet on here for a while, not because I haven’t been “Learning with the Littles,” but because I have not been as intentional as I’d like in terms of reflecting on that learning. I figured now is a better time than ever to stop neglecting the important process of teacher reflection and resume/finally share this post that sheds light on where I am right now in my journey!
Not so recently, I highlighted the imperfections of a typical day in Kindergarten, both to reflect the reality of a day in the life, and to begin bringing new meaning to the word failure. That post can be found here. Growing up, failure was something I avoided at ALL costs. Granted, it has never stopped me from trying like it might have for some, but until recently, failure has never been something I’ve embraced. For a long time, I even struggled taking constructive criticism, because I felt like I had done a “bad job” or wasn’t “good.” I’m so thankful that failure never caused me to quit, but it DID affect my mindset negatively and cause me to dread any experience that could result in failure.
It breaks my heart to see how even Kindergarteners are already aware of failure, and many have developed fully negative connotations of the word. I really started to think about failure more when I read Hacking Project Based Learning. This idea stood out to me:
After reading this book, I went into the following school year ready to use the horrifying “f word”…failure…in my everyday language, but as a positive term. The Class Dojo growth mindset and perseverance videos have been the perfect outlet to integrate the word failure during morning meeting time. These videos help teach students the science behind exercising and growing our brains by doing challenging things, and how we can learn and grow from moments of failure by reflecting on our mistakes.
Our work around failure and attempt to bring the term new meaning was especially crucial in implementing my 3 Kenan Fellowship lessons during the previous school year. I created these science lessons in an attempt to bring a chemistry experience to Kindergartners. Some of the failure along the way has been on my end, and some on their end; but that is the beauty in learning alongside one another. Failure has led to learning for both them and me. Here are the 3 lessons I designed as a result of my fellowship, along with some of the fails along the way and how we responded to them:
Lesson One: Creating Adhesives and Testing Varying Force Among Samples
For this lesson, I created my own adhesive (wet glue) recipe that students would create batches of in table teams. It took lots of my own tests and tweaks for me to settle on the recipe we would implement in class. After the students learned some of the scientific vocabulary we’d be using and discovered real world examples of how adhesives impact our world, it was time for students to put my adhesive recipe into action! The day before they created, I modeled the process for them, making the wet glue and bonding different pairs of wooden craft sticks together with my own batch of adhesive just as they would do the following day.
When I came into school the next morning, NONE of my samples were bonded together anymore (*insert horrified emoji here*)!!!!!!! My mind all of a sudden went to the “worst” case scenario. I had volunteers coming today, all student ingredients pre-measured and ready, and students were SO amped up for the creation process……and what if THEY came in 24 hours after creating samples and none of THEIR samples had remained bonded?!?!?!!? In a Kindergartener’s world, that would lead to devastation and disappointment because the glue simply “didn’t work”!
But when I thought back to what scientists do everyday, this actually seemed like a perfect comparison of failure scientists encounter daily. Even at LORD Corporation, scientists were creating failed sample after sample to get to the “just-right” creation they wanted. So I now had an example of my own failure to share with students, and one that could result in one of two learning paths that we could take as scientists:
- If the student samples were not bonded together the next day, I as a scientist, with the help of my students, needed to continue tweaking my adhesive recipe for us to try it again.
- Maybe students would have more success with their samples than I did, meaning we would need to further analyze what variables had impacted different levels of bonding among mine and theirs when we had all used the same adhesive recipe.
This was a REAL science moment, not failure as we often think of it. No matter how it ended for students, I was confident that both students and I could learn together through whatever “fails” came our way. When I shared what had happened to my samples, and that the same could happen to theirs, they were fully on board and understood that we would reflect and try again if all of our samples came apart the next day.
When testing day came, they were thrilled that most student samples stayed bonded the next day. We would determine the strength of the different tables’ wet glue batches by using a spring scale and measuring the force it took to pull the 2 bonded craft sticks apart. The whole goal was for students to see how different variables could cause different results of force, even when we all used the same adhesive recipe.
However during testing, I could still hear comments that showed me we had work to do on our mindset of failure:
- “YES!!! Ours took more force to pull it apart! We won!”
- “WE GOT TO 50 NEWTONS!!!!!!”
- “Noooooo ours fell apart!!”
- “UGH ours barely held together…only 5 Newtons to pull it apart!”
Those comments revealed a mindset that science was about winning and losing, not about learning and reflecting. It’s amazing how a learning experience is consumed by passing versus failing even in our youngest learners.
Lesson Two: 2D and 3D Wooden Structures Bonded with Varying Adhesives
See this post I mentioned earlier for a full list of imperfect moments from this particular lesson, that guided how I knew both I and my students needed to do some reflecting. It’s crazy how failure and imperfections can be embedded in such an amazing learning experience…or is it?
Lesson Three: The Culmination- Building Cargo Ships with Adhesives
Any STEM project is full of fails…and fails can easily become discouraging due to the mindset we so often maintain regarding failure. So last year, I created some unique steps to launching a product, from a combination of the engineering design process and LORD’s Stage Gate Business model. Rather than the traditional steps to create, test, and improve; I made the first of those steps “Create initial design,” in hopes that students would go ahead and expect failure, with the following step to “Test and tweak.” After my time at LORD, I saw that it’s the testing and tweaking that takes the most time, and that the initial creation hardly ever works. So when students also go into creation expecting to have to test and tweak, they aren’t as discouraged when their product doesn’t work at first.
Before students started to create their cargo ships, I asked them to be on the lookout for fails…any little thing that went wrong, didn’t work, or needed tweaking as they designed. We would post “fails” to a failure board in the classroom after the initial creation.
During the creation, students definitely experienced frustrations. It was so beneficial for them to see the struggles involved in genuine, challenging learning. So often, students think learning should feel easy and they want to give up when it isn’t. Granted, there were different levels of struggle among different groups of students, based on who had more or less adult support and what materials, adhesives, and design they had decided on. But they persevered amazingly! I even caught a picture of one big fail moment – multiple open wet glue bottles, a glue spill on the foam and table, and a tipped over stool. This fail photo may look like a mess from the outside, but I felt like Ms. Frizzle from The Magic School Bus, embracing chaos and craziness that previously would have sent me over the edge. It’s like I had impacted my own mindset in efforts to impact theirs. We enjoyed sharing and posting fails on our own failure board after the lesson. Students were able to laugh them off and relay them with a positive mindset.
We reflected on what was easy and hard after the project. Failure shouldn’t just stop right after the fail- it’s what we DO with failure that matters. And journal reflection is a great way to think about and learn from challenges!
When testing time came, they took their fails with determination and perseverance…after all, we were in the “Test and Tweak” phase and there would be plenty of time to improve the ships and keep testing!
My students and I still have work to do on embracing failure, after all, we each have years of the opposite mindset in the making to counteract. I hope that in education, we can continue to bring new meaning to the word failure, because it could take decades to counteract the damage. It will also take the consistency of students hearing a common positive message about failure from year to year of their schooling. And as long as grades and testing data have such a strong emphasis, it will be hard to reverse the damage being done to the way our students think and learn, which is also the way that most of their parents were trained to think and learn in school. But for now, I will hold onto these special moments…AMAZING moments of failure, imperfection, mistakes, struggle…and hope that my students will continue to remember the learning and success that can result from these moments.