In praise of failure

“I get knocked down, but I get up again
You are never going to keep me down,”


Tubthumping by Chumbawumba, 1997

 

As teachers, our goal is to see our students become successful. We take pride in knowing that we have somehow contributed to student advancement - be it academically, socially, or emotionally. With an end goal in mind, we work backwards, breaking up the task into bite-sized chunks so students can piece them together independently. We push so that they aren’t just settling for “Ok”, so they discover how far they could go, and then go beyond. We set the bar high and make sure students know that when they reach that bar, we’ll recognize their great work, but also continue to expect bigger and better things. It is one of the best rewards a teacher can have when we see our students overcome their personal hurdles.

 

So, let’s talk about failure.

 

In Grade 6, we believe that our measure of success should also include teaching our students not only that failure exists, but how to embrace it. By knowing this, success in the traditional sense - work, money, happiness - takes on a deeper meaning. When students know how to get back up, they begin to understand that the greatest victories are the ones that are the most hard fought. By embracing the lessons from failure, it gifts you resilience, knowledge, and perspective. Failure allows for growth.

 

Failure kicked down the door big time during the Grade 6 students’ cross-curricular end-of-term project - the “Walk On Water” challenge just a couple of weeks ago. Using only the recycled materials we collected in class throughout the term, students were to design and build a boat that could float a sixth grader for one whole minute. The rules of the challenge were simple: 


You may only build in school
You may only use the materials collected 
Your chest and head must be above the water for one minute
You must work in an assigned small group of four to five students

When students had questions or stumbled into difficulties, we halted our all-too-natural impulse to jump to their rescue. This allowed them to stretch their ability to be integrated among others and really collaborate within their group members.

 

On the day of the challenge, a few teams had remarkable success - acing every testing round. Other teams barely made it into the water before their boats imploded, leaving plastic bottles, bits of styrofoam, and string floating in their wake.

 

Each time a boat disintegrated, we anticipated needing to have a shoulder at the ready to cry on and we watched anxiously, waiting for the inevitable blame game to begin. But when we looked around that day, remarkably, we saw only smiles and laughter. Our sixth graders were not only revelling in each others’ successes, but also celebrating even the most spectacular of failures.

 

Our students learned that day that while not everything goes the way you imagine, failure is, as Einstein so famously said, “just success in progress”. An inventor’s path is riddled with questions, head-scratching and groans. It is only by learning from mistakes that progress is made. Thomas Edison went through a thousand prototypes before finally inventing the light bulb. When quizzed how if felt to fail a thousand times, Edison replied, “The lightbulb was an invention with 1000 steps.”

 

One of our sixth graders, Siena, said, “Even though my boat was not successful, I still enjoyed the day and watching how everyone else's boat came out. I know that I did my best and tried my hardest - and so did my teammates. From the process of making it, to the day of trying to float on it I had fun and that's all that matters.”

 

We hope our students learn from the challenge, and indeed, in all our Grade 6 classes the value of resilience and the knowledge that failure is not the end. You pick up the millions of styrofoam pieces out of the water, recycle the bottles, and you go on to enjoy the pool party. When all is said and done, you come away from the experience with newfound knowledge and the motivation to move forward, redesign, and hopefully, inspired to try again.

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