Learning from failure

My Year 7s had a go at designing their own experiments this week.  Year 7s were designing experiments to compare their reaction times. As an introductory activity, we did the classic ruler reaction time test, where students had to catch a falling ruler as fast as they can.

They then worked in groups to design an experiment to compare the reaction times of two groups of people. They had a choice of comparing the reaction times between teachers and students, students who play sports often and students who did not; or boys and girls.

For some reason, all groups except one decided to do experiments that had nothing to do with the ruler reaction test. These groups had variations of a method of throwing balls at test subjects without warning and counting how many times the each person catches and misses the ball. Their method designs were quiet creative but very complex and required very efficient team work. And this class does not have the team work skills to pull it off.

I knew that some students will fight to be the leader of the group; some students will not listen to the instructions from other students; and other groups do not have a common understanding of the method amongst all group members that it will result in the experiment falling apart. Now usually I will say no to the experiment design. I would force them to go back and re-design their experiment. I might even force them to do the ruler experiment instead. I would explain to them that they need to choose a leader in their group and have roles assigned to each group member. I would go to lengths to avoid the potential chaos that was about to happen.

But this time I didn’t do it.  And yes, chaos followed and all my predictions were correct. There were groups where multiple students were giving instructions so overall no one knew what to do. One group had one student becoming extremely frustrated, yelling “No one is listening to me!”

So yes, the experiment was a failure. A lot of students went back to the classroom feeling defeated. They knew they have failed to achieve their goal. They don’t like to fail.

But that was what I wanted them to do – fail. I knew they had lousy team work skills. However, instead of me lecturing them on the importance of effective team work before they headed off to do their experiment, they experienced first-hand what ineffective team work feels like. When we returned to the classroom, we had a debrief activity where students identified what went wrong and what they would do next time. The effective team work elements came from them rather than me. We also discussed the emotions associated with failing. I knew some of them were quite upset because they couldn’t do the experiment the way they had planned it. We discussed the importance of acknowledging those emotions and that it is OK to feel that way. As a class we then agreed that we can feel sad for a little while, but we need to go back and try again because if we don’t, we will never be able to achieve the goal.


This whole activity reflects some elements of gaming. In a game, the game doesn’t tell you what you exactly have to do to win the game. You start playing, you fail, you work out what you did that made you fail and not do it again. In games, players go through a repeated cycle of fail, learn and re-try. Even if you succeed, you can re-play that level and work out how to improve your score.

So why doesn’t this cycle replicated at school. Students often feel the need to master the understanding of a concept or skill straight away. Schools often don’t allow opportunities for students to fail. There is a pressure for students to succeed the first time. When students do an exam, they don’t get to re-sit that exam and show what they’ve learnt from it. When students complete an assignment, they don’t get to re-do that assignment to improve on their previous performance. It’s like school is setting up students to rage quit.

When playing games, players go through the cycle of fail, learn and re-try many times. This leads to risk taking, trial and error and persistence – skills that many teachers want their students to develop. It also allows students to develop resilience. Students need to be able to bounce back from their failures, self assess what they need to do differently and be aware of what their strengths and weaknesses to turn the failure into a success.

So let your students fail. Teach them how to fail. Teach how to bounce back from a failure.