How To Build Resilience: Failing Safe

Success is often measured by how well we do in particular tasks, but is rarely measured by how many times we try things. 

Have you ever taught students who don’t want to try particular tasks because they didn’t want to fail? I certainly have and you know, it’s often the kids who have been told they are ‘gifted’ or ‘clever’ who are least likely to try something that poses a risk to that perceived status. This is such a shame because it is exactly those kids who would benefit from safely failing (failing when the consequences are negligible).  

It seems like there is an increasing proportion of students who fall into this category – kids are also adverse to trying new things if they feel they are always bad at it – like math (poor math always cops a bad rap!). They often don’t want to do it because they get things wrong and they already think they ‘suck at it!’ 

Even at a yr 8 level, students are instantly expecting to be great at something without having to work hard to develop the skills. I firmly believe that we need to be rewarding for trying instead of the lion’s share of reward to be heaped on success – how else will they get there? Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting we provide a watering-down/everyone gets a sticker strategy, but this philosophy can help us provide opportunity to build resilience. Failing safe is a skill that can’t be measured on any standardised test, but is still worth teaching. How can we implement this in a meaningful way?

I grappled with this concept for a while and had a go with building in this philosophy into an engineering challenge. Now, don’t get too caught up on the technicality of the name, we gave each group access to random pieces of equipment and they needed to manipulate it in order to: create an impact (hitting motion) that produces a sound with the ‘musician’ being at least 5m away from the sound. We were preparing our kids for the EPRO8 (engineering) competition. Here’s what we were working from.

When tackling tricky problem solving tasks like this, the more flexible your thinking, the more likely you will be able to come up with a novel solution. As a result, we rewarded the kids for each modification to their contraption that was unsuccessful. The kids were in groups of 4-5 and were working in a MLE (Modern Learning Environment) with 50 students and 2 teachers. In order to keep this manageable, we used the program GooseChase to help us provide the feedback.

GooseChase is an awesome platform where you can create scavenger hunt-type activities and assign points for each mission. If you want to know more about it, here’s an article How To Tech Like A Legend.

We asked the teams to film 6 different iterations of their project failing, stating what they changed for each iteration and why. Points were then awarded for each try. The program automatically allocated points upon submission & we could add (or subtract) bonus points for effort/ingenuity. In this way, the kids were actually encouraged to embrace failure and became excited about not getting it right. They would even come up to us, pumped about getting it wrong and high-five us! Despite not rewarding success, we seemed to trigger a competitive switch and the kids were trying to have the most amount of failures but it was those groups who actually got their machine to play the sound. It was awesome to see their celebration dances!

This approach had helped them apply a flexible mindset and due to failure being part of the success criteria, they could mess it up and still feel successful. It also helped the reluctant learners stay positive during a tricky challenge.

Here are some successful failures you may recognise:

I wonder how this type of approach could be built into other areas of the curriculum. Has anyone else considered this type of approach?

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Have a fantastic week.


Vikki Grant


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