With the school year now in full swing, I’d like to suggest a nontraditional approach to teaching: Let’s ask students to embrace failure as a fundamental part of learning to succeed.
Scientists and engineers embrace failure all the time. They spend their days (and sometimes nights) seeking solutions to complex problems, working collaboratively with colleagues, and trying new ideas without fear. This innovative process can eventually lead them on a path to success, whether it’s a new invention that can improve lives or finding the cause of a disease that could save lives.
Kids are natural innovators. They love to explore new and different ways of thinking, building, designing and solving problems. This kind of experiential learning requires kids to try, fail, try and fail again, and to keep trying until they succeed in solving the task at hand. The result: kids collaborate with one another as they test their ideas, and they develop the confidence and persistence needed to explore the innovation process.
Fran Leach, a science teacher at Merrimack Middle School in New Hampshire, has successfully employed this inspirational way of learning in an annual challenge to her students about “Motion and Forces”. She starts with applying science and engineering concepts to everyday life, such as how supermarket doors open. She then creates an all-day building and design challenge, for which there is no single correct answer – but a collaborative process that results in inspired learning and a real accomplishment.
The first class of students works on designing and building a robot and then leave notes for the next class to continue solving the challenge. This “try, fail and succeed” process continues until the end of the school day when the robot has been worked upon by all five classes and completed for the teacher’s final review.
This experience not only sparks creativity and curiosity in science, it fosters kids’ interest in other STEM activities. Indeed, the momentum for innovative STEM learning in the classroom is building nationwide. On September 8, the Iowa Governor’s STEM Advisory Council, a public/private STEM partnership, rolled out a $4.7 million statewide bipartisan network featuring 12 STEM initiatives for schools and community groups to engage students in hands-on STEM programs and cash stipends for participating teachers and coaches, along with additional monetary support from private industry. Two of the 12 initiatives are programs from FIRST, a not-for-profit that offers four levels of mentor-based, hands-on robotics programs that inspire students to get involved in science and technology.
Iowa’s program is already being hailed as a national model for cultivating innovative lessons in STEM, a potential model for 42 other states considering similar STEM legislation. The initiative will spearhead innovative STEM-based education lessons as an integral part of preparing students for the 21st Century workforce. These are exactly the kind of learning opportunities we need to spur experiential learning, bold ideas and a new path to innovation.
Let’s ask kids to try and fail without fear. Let’s offer classroom lessons that spark imagination and allow kids to go beyond the parameters of a typical school assignment. By investing in the STEM innovative learning process with our students today, we are cultivating the problem-solvers of tomorrow.
Jon Dudas is president of FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology,) a not-for-profit organization that inspires an appreciation of science and technology in young people.
All statements and opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual contributors, and not of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or NBC News.