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Saturday / April 22

The Other F Word: Making Sense of Failure and Nurturing Resilience

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Jessica, an alumna of Techbridge, came to visit. We talked about her plans for the future; she shared that she has a job lined up at Adobe after graduation. But Jessica’s journey to Adobe almost didn’t happen. During her interview—her first for an internship—Jessica was asked to work through a coding challenge on the spot. It didn’t bring out her best and Jessica wasn’t successful. While she might have left feeling defeated, she didn’t let her performance in that moment define what she was capable of. That evening Jessica worked on the problem and emailed her solution despite believing she wouldn’t get the internship. She was offered the internship, which gave Jessica the chance to prove herself. And now a job awaits her at Adobe upon her graduation from U.C. Berkeley.

What was your reaction as you read about Jessica’s interview challenge? We both felt anguish; the failures of the kids we work with sometimes make us uncomfortable. While Jessica’s story had a happy ending, that’s not why we shared it. It’s because Jessica had the confidence that allowed her to recover and rewrite her pathway for her future. Even if Jessica hadn’t been offered the internship, she would have been successful because she defined her own success.

That’s what we want for all the kids we work with—to feel that they can experience failures and not internalize them as indications of their capacity but as temporary setbacks. How can we create spaces where kids feel comfortable with unexpected outcomes and challenging learning processes? And when we see young women at Techbridge confidently present their work as a prototype at Maker Faire without cringing when an LED doesn’t light up or when their projects don’t run perfectly as planned, how do we build on their expanded vision of their future, not only toward securing great jobs, but also toward building persistence in pursuing personal projects or growing healthier communities through democratic participation?

We are working in partnership on a project to learn just that. Techbridge is one of four afterschool programs in the California Tinkering Afterschool Network (CTAN) which is housed in the Center for Informal Learning and Schools at the Exploratorium in San Francisco. Each year, our Network reaches over 2,000 K-12 children through afterschool sites in non-dominant and low-income communities. By bringing together expertise from afterschool directors, facilitators, and researchers across our sites, we are building a professional community committed to supporting youth in seeing their intellectual potential while learning about science, technology, engineering, art, and math through tinkering/making activities. Our goal is to provide evidence-based descriptions of: 1) STEM-rich tinkering/making, learning, and teaching in afterschool; 2) the nature, focus, and formats of professional development that best support staff; and 3) the infrastructure and relationships necessary to sustain and scale STEM-rich afterschool tinkering programs.

How Do We Talk about Failure?

As part of this project we are thinking about how we talk about the iterative experiences that are part of tinkering. Do we use the F word—failure?

Fail early, Fail fast. Fail better. Fail forward. We hear these messages from the tech industry. Maybe these mantras work if you’re the CEO of a tech giant or the lead at a startup, or maybe not. Is the willingness to jump into work on a new product or service without concern for failure truly characteristic of an innovator, or just hype?

With the Maker movement catching fire and engineering curriculum coming to K-12 classrooms, there is a lot of attention on iterations and the engineering design process. With these programs comes talk about celebrating failing; but is it really failing that we are celebrating? Or rather, are we trying to encourage kids to be thoughtful and purposeful at work and play? How can we support youth in brainstorming and sketching plans while learning through an iterative design process when they are creating prototypes?

As Sylvia Libow Martinez and Gary Stager note in the book Invent to Learn, iteration should not be confused with failure as they explain: “any iterative design cycle is about continuous improvement, keeping what works, and dealing with what doesn’t. This is learning, not failure.” And for Rob Shelton, the global innovation chief of PwC, what we should really be focused on is learning how to form a hypothesis and test it. That’s not failing.

As we wrestle with focusing on processes over final products in our programs, we recognize that kids will be frustrated, stymied, and challenged when projects go in unexpected directions and original design plans seem to fail. One of the questions that we are asking is “What does failure mean if you are in middle school?” Maybe it depends on who you are and what experiences you bring to the situation.

For many children in our Network programs, failure is not just a momentary personal setback, but a heavy word that equates to being bad at school, being stupid, and being a disappointment to family or teachers. It’s usually not okay for children to fail in schools and learn from those failures—the system doesn’t make space for it. For most of our children and their families, the word failure doesn’t describe the complexity of design experiments and situations: It doesn’t describe why something failed or measure the amount of effort that went into the process that supposedly failed. In today’s high-stakes testing era, failure carries new weight in terms of whether or not one will have to take drill-and-kill test-prep courses or graduate on time. Sometimes it’s not the F-word either. For some communities (as our Network partners at the Community Science Workshop point out), it can be the “B-word” or “broken.” In either context, there is the notion that something is beyond repair.
At a recent convening of educators and researchers for the CTAN project, we talked about the kinds of experiences that best support experimentation and perseverance. Since we are committed to equity and how to create meaningful learning opportunities for all kids, we believe it is particularly important to recognize the diversity of ways that people experience failure and what persistent challenges they may face in varying contexts. For example, the son of migrant farmers in central California may have a very different educational experience than the daughter of a wealthy Silicon Valley CEO. The historical and social contexts of learning matter.

Recently, there has been a lot of talk about building grit into our students. While we agree it is important for our youth to develop a sense of determination and persistence that can help them through challenging situations into adulthood, we want to point out that we do not believe in persistence divorced from context. We aren’t talking about persisting through failures regardless of the task at hand, nor do we believe in blaming individuals for not persisting without consideration of the larger system or context in which they live. We cannot expect people to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” in a world that gives some people boots and some people no shoes at all.

Techbridge and the other CTAN partners are deliberate in creating afterschool programs in which youth like Jessica have experiences working on activities that challenge them along with support that not only build STEM skills but also confidence to persevere in our programs and in life. We are learning together the kinds of practices that promote iteration in tinkering so that ideas are valued over final products and students can take ownership of their making processes. Here are eight strategies that are supporting our youth and staff.

1. Staff shares personal experiences and feelings around challenges. It’s especially helpful for kids to hear about the setbacks staff encountered when they were their age.

2. Show examples of work in progress and talk about what didn’t go as planned, where they got stuck, and what they are planning next to try. This helps kids see that the projects they will work on are messy and that it’s okay to discuss these challenges with one another.

3. Ask kids how they want to talk about the iterative process especially when things don’t go right. Let them define what’s successful and not (yet) successful and talk in their terms.

4. Create a learning community in which kids feels safe to try something new and support each other’s work in tinkering.

5. Try and plan for the right amount of challenge with projects; too much and kids might give up, go away, and never come back; too little and they won’t have the chance to challenge themselves.

6. Help kids learn when it’s time to take a break, ask for help, or just plain give up (for a while or move on to a different activity). At Techbridge, we create a “Glorious Goofs” space where girls can pause and write about challenges, which help them step back from feeling frustrated and step into a space of reflection toward reimagining new solutions.

7. Build in time and opportunities for redesign into activities. Projects always take longer than planned so make sure there is time in the moment, next day, or next week for kids to return to their projects and rework their ideas.

8. Value youths’ creative abilities and thinking and be willing to embrace the unexpected directions that children take their work.

How do you help youth move beyond challenges, glorious goofs, or messy mistakes? We would love to hear your thinking and experiences around the topic.

Written by

Linda Kekelis is the founder and former CEO of Techbridge, a national nonprofit that offers afterschool STEM programs for girls. Over the years Techbridge expanded from activities that were more prescriptive with step-by-step directions like kit building to open-ended and girl-directed projects. Making has been important for this journey that both enriches the learning experiences of girls and adult facilitators. Linda consults on programs and research related to STEM, particularly on how to increase access for youth and families from underserved communities.

Jean is a senior researcher at the Exploratorium of San Francisco. Jean works closely with the Tinkering Studio to build research-practice partnerships with local organizations to examine what students learn through making, what pedagogical practices support rich STEM learning, the types of professional development supports teachers need to thrive, and how to bridge learning across informal and formal education. Jean is a co-PI on the Research + Practice Collaboratory project funded by the National Science Foundation (DUE-1626365).

Linda and Jean Learning Together: Our Research + Practice Partnership
We met through the California Tinkering Afterschool Network (CTAN), which is a collaborative partnership of researchers and practitioners committed to supporting youth in STEM through making and tinkering. Techbridge was one of four after-school programs in CTAN, which is hosted in the Center for Informal Learning and Schools at the Exploratorium. Collaboration was woven into the work; from the start we were involved as partners in collecting, analyzing, and interpreting data. This partnership provided an opportunity for us to study STEM-rich making and learning in afterschool in order to understand making from the perspective of different groups of girls and also understand the professional development needed to create a safe learning space for youth. Our project was funded by the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation and National Science Foundation (DUE-1626365). Watch our recent video about the project and our findings at the NSF STEM for All 2016 Video Showcase.

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