How to Create a Classroom That’s a Safe Space for Failure

Nov 26, 2019

“Mr. Bycraft, our robot goes backward!” my students informed me, running over after their latest test. “Is it supposed to go that way?” I asked, smiling. “No!” they said in unison, smiling back. “Well, I guess you’d better go fix it then.” And off they went, to work on yet another version of their robot.

Over the last five years, I have worked hard to teach my students that failure is a gift. Setbacks, changes and struggles are an essential part of learning. Things can always be improved. This isn’t a new idea, but we still struggle with the idea that failure is a necessary component of success. Embracing failure can seem counterintuitive to students. If we have always taught our kids that every test must be an A+, then how do we support them when it isn’t?

There has been some research into this concept, of valuing effort, growth, and continuous learning. Carol Dweck and others have written about a “Growth Mindset vs. a Fixed Mindset” in learning and school. Students with a fixed mindset may feel that they’re either good at a subject or bad at it with no room for growth. They may feel anxious about failure because they see it as a negative statement on their basic knowledge in a subject or class. Students who have been at schools that encourage experimentation and the process of learning (or growth mindset) are not as discouraged by failure, as they see their work can always be improved, and learning comes from failure. This can help build confidence in students.

But how do we teach resilience to our students? What makes a classroom a safe space to fail in? There are three areas I’ve identified as crucial in teaching resilience: the mindset of all mentality, student-driven learning and time.

Having a ‘Mindset of All’ Mentality

It’s crucial that teachers, students and administrators all have the mindset that it’s OK to step outside the box and do more experimentation in the classroom. It’s the belief that the process of creating is what teachers should be assessing, rather than the final product.

Students tend to get fixated on goals and “acing” the test rather than the process of learning through hands-on lessons. That’s why when I start a project with students, I level-set and talk about goals of the project with them, helping establish how they’re going to be assessed and expectations of what they’ll be learning. This guides them toward the understanding that it’s not about what they produce at the end, but the lessons they learn along the way.

Most importantly, I teach the mindset of meaningful failure and the importance of learning from your mistakes. With my students, I build in a lot of reflection time into learning to help them really think through what the failure was, why it was or was not acceptable, and the areas they need to build from and learn. Hands-on learning leaves the space to do this—try, adjust and try again.

Prioritizing a Student-Driven Classroom

Many times, if I go into a classroom and tell students what to do, they won’t get excited or motivated to do the project. It’s much more impactful if I give some guidelines and constraints, but really let the students decide where to take it.

One of my main areas of focus is middle school robotics; I love these classes with all my heart. They are loud, chaotic, and full of failure and growth. Much like how my students learn through trial and error, I had to tweak my approach to teaching robotics over time to find the most effective and engaging method.

When I first started teaching the subject, I tried to follow a more traditional instructional method. It didn’t work well. Students were all doing the same thing and it wasn’t very exciting. In my mind, I was angry with myself. “How have you made robotics boring? Why isn’t this better?” I realized I was leading the class and needed the students to lead their own growth to build their confidence through more active, hands-on learning.

I changed my lessons completely. I created a tiered system of “challenges” for all students to meet in any way they liked. If we were learning about gears, students had to create a robot that would travel 10m as fast as possible. If I wanted to teach programming directions and precision, students had to make their solution solve a maze with four possible outcomes.

I opened my challenges up. I started using a more flexible robotics toolkit with students, Lego Mindstorms Education EV3 to be exact. I asked them to create carnival rides inspired by modern amusement parks. I had them create a robot zoo. I asked them to create Lego solutions that moved, and sounded like animals, and then create entire zoo exhibits. Allowing the students to use their voices and have free choice in whatever they created was a joy for us all. Classes became raucous places where robotic fish and gorillas jumped all over. Robotic roller coasters crashed loudly to the floor, before they were fixed for the 50th time. Students laughed and celebrated failure and success, and still learned all the curriculum I had planned for them.

Finding the Time and Space to Teach Resilience

It’s a universal understanding—all teachers wish we had more time in the day to help our students learn and grow. That said, I’ve found it is so important for educators to carve out a dedicated time in their classroom to really go into iterative cycles of projects numerous times to allow students ample time to start a project, experience failure and then have the time to improve and learn from their failures.

Getting administrators to buy into this mindset can be tricky; it’s difficult to assess the design process that students go through. I’ve found the best way for me to assess a student’s learning in this type of an environment—and to help parents and administrators understand the process—is to have students create and maintain a website. My students create their own Google site to chart projects they do, write down their weekly reflections, track their progress and even include videos and pictures to demonstrate their learning.

This paints a complete picture of the process students go through in my classes. It is a work in progress, but it’s much better than a paper test about design or robotics. Giving students control over how they document their design process and work is empowering. They highlight work and growth in areas I might never see. More importantly, their websites are public, so I can share them with parents, other teachers and administrators to demonstrate their journey as learners. It’s powerful for my students to see video and pictures of something they made last semester, or last year and read about their thoughts at the time. It lets them see how far they have really come.


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