Greens Farms Academy is a PreK-12, coed school in Westport, CT

Reframing Failure

By Meghan Chew
Assistant Head of Middle School for Academics

Successful entrepreneurs are often coined saying it is essential “to fail early and often.” Many of us can agree and say that failure is an inevitable part of life and any creative practice; however, it can be difficult when you are not hard-wired to approach life this way. The same is true in the classroom.

While we emphasize the importance of failure in our classrooms, knowing it is a critical source of growth, it isn’t always as easy as said and done. When I first envisioned a math activity that would require students to design, build and test a mini-golf hole, I wasn’t sure how things would go. The real success of the project relied heavily on students feeling comfortable with failing and heading back to the drawing board time and time again. 

I thought long and hard about that and began to think of other disciplines in which failure was a natural part of the experience and how the word is used to enact success in that field. Collaborating with Nina Yuen in their CSED (Computer, Science, Engineering Design) class gave me an angle to consider. When students began to see themselves as engineers rather than just math students, it opened the door to a new process of failing and a better phrase for intentional work. Engineers fail and mess up every day, but they know that failure is crucial and necessary to achieve success. They also use a different word to label their failure: iteration. An iteration became our new phrase when you experiment, try something, see what happens, learn and then adapt or pivot to the next move. The shift in the language allowed students to let go of their fear of failure and dive into intentional iteration.  

The results unlocked students’ potential to work as actual engineers combining multiple disciplines under a new learning frame. Removing the stigma allowed them to use feedback from tests and peers to refine their ideas. This iterative learning process allowed them to extend their designs beyond what they first considered possible. Suddenly we had ramps, tunnels, geometric boundaries, hydraulic obstacles, and even elevators in our prototypes. Long-term growth, not short-term outcomes, mattered, and through collaboration, they leveraged the knowledge and techniques of others. 

The end product was more than any of us ever envisioned, and more importantly, our fifth-grade students developed core competencies of both resilience and growth. 

Iterative learning is genuinely that — learning. It is the heart of intellectual discovery and improvement and one that we hope to pursue more frequently in our Middle School classrooms.  

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