At a recent conference I attended at High Tech High School in San Diego, California, I was struck by how many conversations included a focus on failure – and how not getting everything right all the time was an integral part of the learning process for students, teachers and administrators. The message was clear: in order for deep learning to occur, everyone needs to be reassured that there will be moments of failure. These need to be acknowledged, embraced, and worked through as they are part of the process of creating innovative learning environments for all students, environments replete with the deeper learning outcomes of Mastery of Core Academic Content, Critical Thinking and Problem Solving, Collaboration, Effective Communication, Self-directed Learning, and growing an “Academic Mindset.”
In a session I attended on what competencies teachers need to foster deeper learning, presenters emphasized the importance of trust, and how easy it is to fail to trust especially when new and innovative educational pathways are being forged. Trust needs to exist between teachers and students, and between the administration and teachers. Trust is especially important in an environment where you are working with students to personalize their learning experience. Creating that environment starts with building strong relationships between students and teachers. Oftentimes for teachers this requires a different level of engagement with students that some may find difficult to embrace. An example was mentioned of students wanting more access to teachers that could encroach into late nights and weekends. Creating that important relationship that involves trust, sharing, caring and setting high expectations of students is fraught with possibilities of failure, but it is critical for everyone involved to recognize that this is a process, takes time, and may take several iterations before the right balance is achieved.
Another session highlighted the work of Galileo Learning which provides hands-on learning for students at summer camps. As founder Glen Tripp noted about the camp learning environment, “kids let go of the fear of getting a wrong answer. They learn to collaborate and to try new things.” These include exploring photography, music creation, building go-carts, and engaging in outdoor games and artistic endeavors. As students hone their innovation and creative talents, failures are inevitable. Glen shared the example of Maya whose process of making a go-cart was fraught with self-doubt. She had never used power tools before. Yet, despite failures, Maya persisted – and soon she was adding in a sound system to have music as she drives around her neighborhood! She now has other girls coming to her garage to make things together on Saturdays. Glen observed that the innovation process involves identifying goals, generating ideas, designing something – and then testing the design, evaluating it, and redesigning. “You know from the start there will be multiple iterations – and failure,” he emphasized. Camp participants learn to embrace the failure through the presence of an ‘epic fail’ wall where kids proudly post their failures. We laughed as we saw a picture of a burnt bowl of brownies – clearly something had gone wrong as young chefs learned how to bake! But the enduring message from Galileo Learning was that, in addition to providing structures that support risk-taking, it is also important to encourage students to learn from failure.
Admittedly, it’s tough to get things right on the first try. In an extended workshop, also known as a ‘deep dive,’ I spent a creative six hours with a group of high school educators. We worked on communicating a vision for deeper learning using project-based learning via three different ways. We had to create a ‘message map’ with three key messages about this topic that could be shared in nine seconds and up to 27 words; relate a story about deeper learning occurring via project-based learning; and create a two to three-minute video that conveyed our message. Stressful, indeed!! As we started working together, we first had to get to know one another, then start brainstorming how we could concisely, and in jargon-free English, describe project-based learning. Our initial attempts underwent constant revision until time was up – and then we proudly read out our message to everyone present:
“Project-based learning enables students to acquire and produce knowledge, apply it in different settings, and develop skills necessary to adapt to ever-changing environments.” Bob Lenz, Executive Director for the Buck Institute for Education, which promotes the use of project-based learning in schools, who was facilitating the workshop, provided feedback to our group, noting that our message still contained too much jargon and we would need to simplify the language even more! Not quite an epic fail, but definitely not a pass! However, the pithy feedback resulted in us tackling the message yet again and working to simplify it even more. Here are two of our subsequent attempts:
“Project-based learning is about knowing and doing. Students work in groups doing research and talking together to solve problems that have meaning to them.”
“With project-based learning students apply their learning in real-world, hands-on situations that prepare them for great success in college, work and life in the 21st century.”
Next we worked on the video, interviewing students and staff about project-based learning. We also recorded examples of projects throughout High Tech High classrooms and corridors. Yet, when we created the final version, we had to exclude some footage as the quality was not that good. Another minor failure, but one we certainly learned from.
During the three days spent at High Tech High I was able to think and talk about deeper learning a great deal, and reflect on how we are going to prepare all our students for success beyond high school. A critical part of the preparation involves how they learn to confront and deal with failure – and we need to equip them to do so by letting them fail, and then supporting them to once again find their feet.
Loretta Goodwin is a Senior Director at the American Youth Policy Forum.