In the past, I taught a unit of study and then gave students a culminating test. Whether they passed or failed, the state standards and the clock mandated that I move on. Hopefully, most of the passengers were still on the train, but even with the best of my efforts, I lost a few in the process.
But somewhere between those early steps and the time my students enter my 8th grade class, something has changed. Failing is no longer seen as a necessary part of the learning process. This is sad, because all of my students and I fail often. Somehow we get the message that to fail in front of others is not okay. We develop the mindset of, “Don’t try unless you can get it right. If you fail, you are a failure.”
But failure is actually how our brains learn. When we perform a task successfully, nothing new occurs in our brain. However, when we make a mistake or error and repair it, a new synapse forms. Thus learning is dependent upon a discrepant event – upon failing to fit something into an old paradigm.
A great illustration of this is the remarkable video by Derek Muller on his YouTube channel, Veritasium. Take a moment to watch the video and notice that no one learned until they were willing to be wrong.
S.T.E.M. instruction fosters this mindset. It moves students away from failure paralysis and risk aversion. When my students fail to solve a problem, they no longer see it as a cliff at the end of a dead-end road. They see it as part of the process. It is an opportunity to learn – to restart from a better position.
In fact, I often model S.T.E.M. instruction using a cyclical model. First you encounter a problem. Then you research what is already known and how others have approached the problem. From there you design a solution. Then you build it, test it, and evaluate the results. This then leads back into the loop. If your solution doesn’t work, you do more and better research, better design, and so on. The student continues in this loop until they are satisfied with their solution.
And this is how my son learned to walk. No tumble ever deterred him from trying again. He cycled through the loop over and over, more excited each time, and eventually he mastered a new skill and built a whole bunch of cool synapses in the process.