By Andrew Miller
With all the push for STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) education, I think sometimes what we really want out of STEM education gets lost. STEM education came out of the need for more students in the fields of STEM. As scientists, engineers, and mathematicians, we want more students to find passions in these content areas and ultimately become leaders in the field. However, we can often get too focused on the content. We must remember that the pillar of STEM education isn’t just the content but also the mindsets behind it. 21st century skills are a critical component to STEM education. We want students who think critically, creatively, and collaboratively within the content areas of STEM. You can’t have one without the other. In fact, one of the critical mindsets that STEM education can foster is using failure as an opportunity to grow and learn.
One of the key components of STEM education is design challenges. With these design challenges, students might work individually and in teams to solve problems ranging from robotic challenges to bridge designing to physics puzzles. By default, students will try out ideas that do not work completely. This is where great learning can occur. Because a STEM design challenge is set up with multiple opportunities to test ideas in a safe way, failure is viewed as an opportunity to learn. The design process takes time and therefore provides multiple opportunities to try and fail. In other academic environments, students often only get one shot at an assignment, which creates a fear of failure. With STEM design challenges, there is safety in failure.
Deeper Learning through Failure
When we “fail forward” we ask more questions—that is, we move forward and delve deeper into the inquiry process. For example, when students first design a bridge and it crashes to the ground due to weight issues, they will inevitably ask, “Why did this happen?” “How much weight did it hold?” “What new idea might I try out?” These questions require students to not just know that the idea wasn’t quite on track but also to understand why it wasn’t on track. These failures in STEM design challenges foster deeper learning through questioning. Students will then need to seek out further instructional resources from experts in the field, books and online readings, and their teacher. Failure fosters more learning; it doesn’t hinder it.
Failure in the Real World
We know that students learn more when they see how their learning connects to the real world. Often in STEM education, we partner with experts in the field to learn from them. Sometimes these experts aid in a design challenge or provide feedback and information on an assignment. For these STEM experts, failure is a natural part of their work. They are constantly failing and innovating. By working with STEM experts in the real world, our students can experience this type of failure and discover that it is just a natural part of both learning and life.
When we consider the components of the ASCD Whole Child Approach, we can see a clear and strong connection between STEM education and the safe, engaged, and challenged tenets. Students who recognize failure as an opportunity to learn experience a safe place to learn. They are engaged because failure opens up multiple paths and opportunities to learn in real-world contexts. And finally, they are challenged because STEM design challenges require complex thinking and problem solving.
Andrew K. Miller (@betamiller on Twitter) is on the National Faculty for the Buck Institute for Education, an organization specializing in 21st century project-based learning, and faculty member for ASCD’s Professional Learning Services, where he provides his expertise to help educators with a variety of professional development needs. He is also a regular blogger for Edutopia.