Endless Opportunities to Fail are the Key to Student Growth

When I think about the differences between my fourth grade experience as a student in 1982 and my fourth grade students’ experience thirty-five later there are the obvious ones like the bevy of technology that our kids have at their fingertips today and of course the fact that our music and movies from that era were better. But, I digress. The biggest difference is that our kids today have so many opportunities to practice and fail at learning while consequently growing academically. In most cases we did a worksheet once and whatever the results were went in the grade book and then we moved on to the next worksheet. The closest we ever had to practice was the Thursday spelling test that didn’t count. The “real” one for all of the points was Friday after lunch. We didn’t even get to practice our math skills with Number Munchers as that Apple 2e fixture was still four years from being created.

Think about how much more enjoyable (and dare I say easier?) the arduous tasks of learning math facts or mastering the steps of long division would have been if we had the varied practice tools and opportunities our kids have today. The “drill and kill” software tends to get a bad rap by some in the educational technology community because it can be viewed as a low level use of technology. In the right dose, practice games like Arcademic Skillbuilders can be a spoonful of sugar for learners working on boosting their math skills. Call it “low level” but I would have gladly traded you my Journey Escape cassette to have something like this for developing my ability to multiply two-digit numbers by two-digit numbers. Today schools are also making appropriate use of services like IXL and XtraMath to allow kids to practice math skills of all types at self-paced and individualized progressions…key words being “appropriate use”. These are tools for growth and not math curricula…and they shouldn’t be the only ways kids use technology.

Speaking of higher level uses of technology, two devices have been essential elements of our creation of an elementary STEM program in Hamilton, Spheros and Flybrix. Spheros are robotic spheres we program with the Tickle app. Flybrix are tiny drones built from Legos on a computerized flight control board. Both allow kids to create, test, rebuild, and then test the effectiveness of their adaptations.

If you are looking for drones that are easy for your students to fly, Flybrix aren’t for you. If you are looking an experience that challenges kids to try different configurations and then dig deep into what makes the vehicles go, they are worth the investment and the struggles that can go with building them. Flybrix even tweeted that their drones are built to crash and are durable because they do.

Building Flybrix with our students in third and fourth grade was a highlight of our school year in STEM and it really contributed to our culture of learning to embrace failure. I guess there is something about witnessing epic crashes that makes that easy. 

Spheros are another way to connect the coding to controlling real world objects and the Tickle app provides a student-friendly interface for block coding the instructions.

By simply giving students tasks that increase in difficulty, you will grow their abilities to solve problems by modifying a plan. Have kids measure 500 cm and tape an X to the floor with painters’ tape. They will need to adjust the time and speed Sphero will travel in order to land on the X. This may take several trials and with each trial comes informal algebra and great reasoning. Once they hit the X, add a right turn or put out cones to circumnavigate. This exercise like the Flybrix has helped to establish a culture of trial and error modification in our STEM classes and it’s becoming an ingrained part of our design process no matter the activity.

A couple of students in our special needs STEM class took on the challenge of sending Sphero on a major journey. Instead of just coding it to travel around our tiny classroom, these two sent it all of the way down to the principal’s office. The fourth grader and his first grader helper (and with relatively little help from me) broke the big trip down into little trip and then tackled each part. Each step took several trials and modifications and as they got closer and closer to the office their excitement grew with each accomplishment. Finally their Sphero was able to complete its journey and we all celebrated.

We really do teach in amazing times and our students are incredibly fortunate to have so many ways to practice and grow their skills, whether those be math skills or drone design. It is my hope that these coding and building challenges will someday serve as a blueprint for how my students attack problems or invent something. Even if they never become engineers or designers, they are learning how to think computationally and handle a little of adversity. Both are essential life skills…so let them build and let them fail.


 (@mrlosik): Andy is an Elementary STEM teacher in Hamilton, Michigan. He has been teaching for 24 years in a variety of school settings. For the last two decades, he has specialized in technology and STEM at the elementary level. Andy is an Apple Distinguished Educator, Google Certified Innovator, and was the 2009 MACUL Technology Teacher of the Year.