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Should I Let Them Fail?

By Laura Reasoner Jones — February 11, 2009 5 min read
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I’ve spent the last week agonizing over my after-school advanced robotics program. How can I prevent what is turning out to be a train wreck in progress?

At least two of my five teams of 5th and 6th graders are not going to be able to present anything at our final parent demonstration event, and I need to decide what I am going to do about it. Am I going to let them experience the natural consequences of inaction, or am I going to intervene and fix things? In the heat of the moment, I feel like everything I have ever believed in as a teacher or parent is at stake.

Let me set the stage: I have 11 kids in the advanced robotics program—an after-school club with the goal of exposing kids to Lego Robotics using my grant-funded NXT kits. I did this last year for the first time, and had 18 kids, but only eight of them came back (our school is cursed with extremely high mobility). So I recruited three girls from last year’s Pico Cricket programming class and hoped they would catch up. As a result, my current group consists of eight 6th grade boys from last year and three new 5th grade girls.

I had originally scheduled six after-school sessions of two hours each. But we were all having so much fun that, at the kids’ request, I extended both the length of the sessions and the number. We ended up meeting 10 times, in three-hour chunks, with a final demonstration for parents and anyone else we could scare up.

That’s where we are now—coming up on the big demonstration showcase, with two of our five small teams having virtually nothing to show for all this time and effort.

Blame Game

Is this their fault? My fault? I just want them to have something to show, so that they feel good about the experience and leave robotics thinking they might want to explore engineering someday. But I guess I also want to assign responsibility. I feel as if I have met mine. I gave these two teams all the resources they needed—sample programs to use, plenty of time, good food to eat, and two real engineers as mentors (who were very hard to find). So did these kids live up to their responsibilities? No, and that is the problem.

They were supposed to build a robot, any robot, and program it to do something of their choice. Is this so hard? I didn’t think so, based on their performance last year, and the performance of the kids on the other teams around them.

But they just could not get it together. They spent weeks playing with the software but would not use any of the canned programs that are great starting places. We (the mentors and I) could not get them to see that you just start with a canned program and then modify it to your heart’s content—there is nothing wrong with that.

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!!!

A Teacher’s Dilemma

How can I allow them fail? I cannot in good conscience let them stand back and watch all of their friends be applauded and praised by staff and parents. That is not what this after-school program is about. It 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.

In this situation, my two sets of goals have come into direct conflict. I am going to have to rescue them to have them experience success. Not fun.

I also think about the goals of the kids who enroll in this program. I think they want to have fun; they are not looking for career experiences. They also want to be able to say that they were “chosen” for robotics—there is a certain cachet to belonging, because they are the “advanced” kids. And, deep down, I think they want to do well—doesn’t every child?

So, all of our goals are in conflict with each other. But the only ones I can control are mine, and I have to resolve this conflict today.

Teacher With a Plan

I give this deep thought in the car, at the gym, in the shower, and unfortunately in bed at night, losing sleep over it. But I come up with a plan, one that depends on the goodness of the mentors. Because it is the mentors who are going to do the rescuing, preserving some of my pride, and maintaining the illusion that the kids did it themselves. That way the kids won’t look at me every day in technology lab with the thought that I’m there to rescue them.

Here’s how it plays out:

1. I grab the mentors as they arrive and tell them that their job today is to get these two teams functioning. I remind them that we have one week and if they can help the kids get the robots built, we can get the programming done between now and then. They are in perfect agreement, having watched these teams flounder.

2. I leave them to pump up their teams, and I’m quite impressed at how they handle it. One engineer who has never worked with kids in his life says to them, “Our deadline is here. It is crunch time. Let’s do it!” And the kids just jump up and start to work. Ah, the power of an outsider!

3. While this is happening, I go to each of the other teams and simply ask them if they will help another team when and if they are asked. I am gratified to see faces light up, and to hear assurances that “of course we will.” Even though these kids have set up elaborate forms of competition, with points for how much of each other’s robots they will destroy, they are great kids at heart and want each other to succeed.

It is going to be OK. I can feel it. The two teams build their robots and develop a (rescue) plan. We set times for completing the programming, and they leave bouncing. Life is good again.

Now, if I can just keep them from destroying the robots completely in next week’s competition…


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