The Impact of Mistakes: Setting Up Learning Situations Where Kids Can ‘Fail Safely’.


Our kids love pets! We have a dog, Bella, who the kids adore. Eva, our 11-year-old, has a blue lovebird named Tim. Charlie, our 8-year old, just said farewell to the last of his goldfish. And then there was Midnight. My youngest daughter, Maggie, recently received a gerbil as a gift, and given how dark his fur was, she named him Midnight.

We weren’t expecting this to happen today. Maggie’s cry for help shattered the calm. My wife jumped to action, and from the tone of the conversation, I knew exactly what was up. Everyone could hear Maggie’s sobs throughout our home. She was so sad. She loved that little fellow. Days earlier she’d hardly been able to speak because she was laughing so hard. She was telling us about how Midnight liked to go for rides in her big pink Barbie convertible. In her room was a nice little place for him to live, and she’d sit and talk to him and even read stories to him before bed.

It’s sad when things like this happen. It would be easier on us, as parents, to not buy our kids pets. Yet we do. We feel it is important for them to learn how to care for animals and, yes, how to deal with loss when it inevitably happens. It was a tough day for Maggie and all of us, really. But it was something we worked through. Her sister and brothers showed tremendous compassion. Maggie will be okay. There will be other pets.

This had me thinking about dealing with tough times and working with our students. It made me wonder, do we do everything in our power to make sure kids do not feel hurt or disappointed? I think about how we set up learning tasks and wonder, is there a real chance of failure, and if so, is there an opportunity to learn from it?

I’m certainly not suggesting we create certain-to-fail tasks for our kids, far from it. Instead, I’m wondering if we keep the bar high enough that, sometimes, things do not work out.

I can only speak for my current setting and what I see in our school. The first thing that pops to mind is our industrial arts program. If you are not following @WaldheimSchoolIA on Instagram yet, you need to. Our students are creating very high-level projects too numerous to list here. One that stands out is a project started on the wood lathe last week.

Lyndon, a very bright, intelligent student, decided he’d try his hand at creating a piece on the lathe that involved making two pieces that would thread together. This is such precise work and requires a delicate touch. It was great to watch him work, and I was excited to see his finished product. On Friday, when I dropped by the shop to see how it was coming along, he said, “not so good, it ain’t perfect”. He took me to the painting booth and showed me his work. He explained what was wrong with it, but he didn’t stop there. He went on at length to detail what he’d do differently next time. He already had a plan in place.

Lyndon suffered a slight setback. His first attempt at creating a threaded piece on the lathe was not perfect. But that’s okay, he learned from it. I’m sure his next piece will be a little better, and knowing Lyndon, he’ll find little things that “ain’t perfect”.

From an educator’s perspective, a significant part of this scenario is how his teacher invited him to take a chance. He allowed Lyndon to create something using a technique the teacher himself was just learning. It was learning at its finest. It was learning through a setback.

I felt for Lyndon but was proud of his determination. I was heartbroken for Maggie but was proud of her bravery and maturity.

Sometimes learning “ain’t perfect”. Sometimes it down-right hurts. But it helps us grow.

What do you think? What are some great things kids can learn from when things don’t always go their way? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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About the Author: Bruce Mellesmoen