Working Together, Learning to Fail
Working together in collaborative groups is such an important skill for not just my students, but, really, everyone everywhere. Humans are social creatures; we simply have to learn to work with other people, whether they are friends, family, or complete strangers. Over the past fifteen years, I have spent a lot of time learning about group dynamics, positive leadership, and ways to promote collaboration. It should be no surprise, then, that I have also spent a lot of time learning how to teach these skills to my students.
I love collaborative groups in the classroom. I use them in literacy, in math, in social studies, in physical education, and in science. Almost all of the work we do in science, actually, is done in groups. Typically, I allow students pick their groups, but today I wanted to see what would happen if I assigned the groups randomly. I expected that the students would find themselves working with peers that they have not worked with as much in the past.
I also wanted to give the students a challenging task for their groups. I had several do-it-yourself kits in my electricity and magnetism tubs that I wanted them to figure out how to build. One kit was an FM radio, one was an electric motor, one was a solar array, and one was a collection of wires and switches that could be used for different circuits. I handed out the kits with the directions and told the students that they had to work with their groups to try to build whatever their kit was.
Something interesting happened in the process: the groups failed. All of them. Spectacularly.
The FM radio wouldn’t work, the motor wouldn’t start, the solar array wouldn’t stay in place, and the closed circuit didn’t do anything.
Needless to say, all of the students were very frustrated. They had the parts, they had the directions, they tried to follow them, but nothing worked the way they had expected.
To be honest, I had actually hoped this would be the case. My students have all had positive experiences with success. They know what it is like to set a a goal and complete it without problems. They know how to work with a group to accomplish a task. But I don’t think as many of them have learned what to do when something doesn’t work out. And I realised something: as important as it is to learn how to do something right, it is also important to learn how to cope with failure.
I am reminded of a comment that a friend of mine made when discussing his research in theoretical physics. Back when the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland was being built to try to prove whether or not the Higgs Boson existed, I learned that while the physics community would have been excited to prove the existence of a theoretical particle, there were many who were hoping that the experiment would not work. Why? Because it would mean that the researchers would have to start back at the beginning to try find another possible solution. Failure is not the end. It is just an opportunity to start over and try something new!
We are done with the first semester now. We have accomplished so much since August, but we still have a long way to go. As I look over my students assessments and work samples, I am reminded of this conversation with my friend. There are some things that we have learned, mastered, and moved on to the next level of complexity. There are other things that we have tried to learn but still need to work on. Rather than focusing on the failure, though, I will spend the next two weeks during the winter break thinking about new ways to approach the concepts and skills that we haven’t mastered yet.
Enjoy the winter break! I won’t be updating every day, but please check back from time to time for any announcements, book reviews, and special posts!