Spectacular Failure

I’m watching a team of four kids make a model car. They just glued the axle to the bottom of the car. If that axle is glued, it can’t move and the car won’t go anywhere. It’s an obvious mistake, but it will take them a full minute to discover it. They put their car onto the test ramp, release it, and watch it go nowhere.

They are flustered. They don’t know why their car isn’t working. They are clueless.

Now is my opportunity. I don’t let them escape back to their work area, but require that they look at their car. “What’s the problem?” I ask.

“Our car doesn’t move,” they tell me.

When I ask why, they shrug. So, I say: “Let’s look at what could cause the problem.”

I have one team member try to spin the wheels. A flash of insight occurs, but understanding still eludes.

“Why don’t the wheels move?” I ask.

Then one member sees the problem. A few questions later they understand what a bearing does and why they need to run the axle through the bearing and glue that to the car. Now everyone on that team has a better understanding of what axles, wheels, and bearings do. No amount of lecturing at the 5th grade level could convey that.

This quantum leap of understanding happened only because teams had the freedom to fail. We don’t want them to fail, but we allow them to fail. If I interrupt their work by telling them that their design will not work, I’m destroying that freedom and taking over their responsibility to make the model and to learn.

At no time do I tell them the “right” way to make the model. But I do ask questions that jump start their thinking. They retain creative control and responsibility for success.

Why is failure important?

Years ago when I was the founding director of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, one of my jobs was to conduct video interviews with the world’s greatest inventors. One of my first interviews was with Jim Hillier. Jim held some 300 patents, was director of research and development for one of America’s leading technology companies, and inventor of the electron microscope lens. A brilliant guy.

I was trying to figure out what the magic juju was that made this group of inventors the best in the world. Among this diverse group of people I figured there couldn’t be just one magic juju, but maybe there were just a few. If we could uncover them, we could apply them to our educational programs to launch the next generation of inventors.

Jim responded to my question about what makes world-class inventors different from the merely smart. He told me that every one of the inventors inducted into the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame had shared the same experience early in their careers. I leaned forward to hear what the magic elixir was.

“We all had the opportunity to mess around in a shop or laboratory,” he told me. “We had the freedom to make mistakes when a mistake would not ruin our careers.”

I tried to correct him by saying: “You meant to say that every one of the inventors had the opportunity to do experiments.”

He glared at me for a moment and then repeated what he had said the first time, “No, we all had the opportunity to mess around.”

I got it. Mess around. Pursue ideas. Try techniques and materials. Fail, recover, and find out that recovery isn’t that painful. And, each recovery builds the self-confidence to try again. Those without the experience of mistake tolerant learning don’t have the self-confidence to persevere when the going gets tough.

Where is failure in the classroom?

Where in our learning system do we allow kids to mess around? Where can they try creative ideas and know, if they fail, that it’s okay because that’s how we learn?

When you consider the millions of things we learn in life, how to walk and talk and interact with others and cut a piece of wood, we learn nearly everything making mistakes, not listening to lectures. Living things learn by trying and failing and eventually succeeding. Only in schools is a different and less successful method of learning used.

Encourage spectacular failures and celebrate them to make learning happen.

Learn more about Engineering Creativity here.