Learning to Fail

Too often, teachers, myself included, are guilty of giving in to students’ struggles too early. When students are struggling to understand a concept or achieve a goal, the temptation is to help provide a solution too early. But, there is much to be gained from students continuing to wrestle with a problem for an extended period of time. Not only does it help them develop a sense of perseverance and determination, but it also helps students realize that they need to own their learning, that they will not be bailed-out by their teacher, but need to problem-solve.

Recently, I tasked my students with a problem that I hoped would help them achieve those realizations. I told my students that their task was to find a way to fit their whole bodies through a single sheet of paper with the borders still intact.  They could use as much paper for as many tries as they wanted, and use any other resources, including scissors. I didn’t give them any further explanation, and I let them go for it. Over the next 20 – 25 minutes, I watched my students struggle, fail, and try again, sometimes amid frustration. There were many different strategies being used. I had a specific strategy in mind for how to achieve the goal, but a few of my students were able to cut the middle out of the paper and leave just a sliver of a border and were able to squeeze their way through the paper. It was not the correct strategy I had in mind, and it wouldn’t work for all students, but for some it did.

They were able to defy even my expectations and find an alternative, correct method to solve the problem. After about 25 minutes of strategizing and trial-and-error, and some successes as I mentioned, I showed the students the method that I had learned. Through problem-solving, failure, and perseverance, my students were able to discover new strategies that made them successful and explored other possibilities that enabled them to get closer to achieving their goal. The method that I used and showed my students was this method: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4jBUwH-TfqQ