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.


Action learning with Minecraft – Cycle 1

Last term I decided to undertake an action learning project to see whether using feedback will improve students’ self regulation skills in project based learning. This came from my observations that some of my  Year 7 students, who work well in traditional, teacher-centred learning activities, displayed a lot of off-task behaviours in project based learning, which included being not staying with their teams, constantly changing their minds about their projects and other actions, which resulted in a very low-quality learning artefact being produced (see my previous post for more details). This happened in their 60 second science project, where they worked in teams to create a 60 second video on an astronomical phenomenon. Their latest project was to create a model Parthenon in Minecraft where the architecture followed the golden ratio. This project was broken into 4 stages where each stage had a goal and students and I had to assess on how well they have achieved their goal in the form of medals and missions.

Based on informal classroom observations, more students were on task than the previous project. From their survey data, more students said they knew what their team’s goal was, knew how they could help their team achieve that goal, stayed with their team and were on task.

Note: The first graph shows the survey data from the 60 second science project while the second and third graphs show the data from the Minecraft Parthenon project. (Sorry, the categories have been listed backwards in surveys 2 and 3.)

student survey results for self regulation

shows the data from the Minecraft Parthenon project

shows the data from the Minecraft Parthenon project

There were also selected students who struggled with self regulation skills more than the rest of the class in the 60 second science project. Let’s call them Student A, Student B and Student C. When I compared their data, this is what it showed:

student A's survey data over time

student B's survey data over time

student C's survey data over time

When I combine the students’ survey data with my own classroom observations, I can conclude that these three students have worked a lot better during our project sessions. They weren’t “perfect” though, but they did improve. I did see them looking up their own houses on Google Maps a few times while they were meant to be working on their Minecraft Parthenons.

However, I don’t think I can just conclude that giving effective student feedback will cause students to have better self regulation skills in project based learning. There were some major differences between the 60 second science project and the Minecraft Parthenon project:

  • Duration of the project – The 60 second science project lasted 8 weeks while the Minecraft Parthenon project only took 3 weeks. Students might work more effectively in shorter-duration projects.
  • General appeal of the project – While the class in general enjoyed both projects, there was a more heightened excitement about using Minecraft. The games based learning aspect might have affected students’ work ethic. Many students are also very familiar with Minecraft, while the 60 second science project involved students learning and applying unfamiliar concepts such as scripting and storyboarding.
  • Structure of the projects – The 60 second science project involved students working in a range of learning spaces. At any one session, some students were in our main classroom, some students were in another classroom to film, some students were in another classroom so they can record audio. This created a slightly chaotic atmosphere even though it was organised chaos. In the Minecraft Parthenon project, all students were on the mezzanine level of the library. For students who are easily distracted, such an environmental difference might also affect their ability to self regulate.

I’m now coming up to cycle 2 of my action learning project. The next project will involve year 7s creating their own newspapers to report on the London Olympics. I’m staying with feedback and self regulation but will make a few changes to the way data is collected:

  • Student surveys will have additional questions that ask them how well they understood the feedback and how well they know how to act on that feedback
  • Observations from other teachers – I’d like someone else to come into the class and observe Student A, Student B and Student C as well as the rest of the class and note what they are doing at what times of the project session

Cycle 2 will begin in week 2 of Term 3 so watch this space for updates. Also watch this space for updates on how my team of science teachers have been using action learning to improve student learning in science at our school.