Should I let kids fail?

An after-school robotics club advisor asks whether she should let students fail at what’s supposed to be a fun activity. Laura Reasoner Jones, a technology teacher in Virginia, coached fifth and sixth graders, who were supposed to build and program robots for a demonstration to which parents were invited. Two of the five teams didn’t get a robot to work.

Am I going to let them experience the natural consequences of inaction, or am I going to intervene and fix things?

. . . They spent weeks playing with the software but would not use any of the canned programs that are great starting places.

. . . When they finally got a robot built and found they could not get the program to work, they were unwilling to either tinker with it or start over, and the time just dribbled away. So, now it is the last week before the demo, and they have nothing. Nothing!!!

Jones decided she could not let them “watch all of their friends be applauded and praised by staff and parents,” while they had nothing to show.

(The after-school program) is about personal success, whatever form that may take.

I think about my goals for this project. I want each child to build and program a robot, learning that he/she can do new things and stretch his/her brain into new fields without fear of failure. I want each child to see herself/himself as an engineer, a builder, a creator. And above all, I want each child to feel pride in his/her work.

But personally, as a mother and as a teacher, I also want each child to learn from mistakes, to take risks and experience the consequences of risk-taking. I don’t want to rescue kids. I want them to learn to rescue themselves.

Finally, she decided to ask the engineer mentors to rescue the slacker students so they could “experience success.”

Is it really success? Would failure have been more educational?

In my book, Our School, a hard-knock charter school, Downtown College Prep, sends teams of students to compete in a Silicon Valley robotics contest called the Tech Challenge.  The best team takes fourth place; another team’s robot fails the challenge, while the girls’ team is sidelined by a bad battery.

“You’re all champions,” says the presenter. Adam and Rico look dubious. They don’t want anyone saying this was their best effort, because it wasn’t. They can do better.

. . . The Lady Lobos also aren’t satisfied with their performance. They glare at their yellow ribbons, given for participating. Their machine didn’t work, and they’re not going to pretend it did.

After three fourth-place finishes in the Tech Challenge, a DCP team won the grand prize in 2004. One of things those kids learned was how to try, fail, get up off the floor and try harder and smarter next time around.