Putting the “I” in Fail
One of my most formative academic experiences happened completely by accident.
It was 8th grade, and time for the Science Fair. My mom was insistent I participate, and do something that was Not A Volcano. I had much, much lower standards for myself, and didn’t really want to be noticed by anyone, so A Volcano sounded like an excellent idea. Ever the teacher, my mother dutifully went to the library and checked out a book on 101 Fun Science Fair Projects! After a period of intense not-caring, I selected a seeming innocent project called “Build a solenoid” and forgot about the entire thing.
The weekend before the school Science Fair, my mom remembered I had to work on my project, so I sat down to try to “Build a solenoid”.
Bugger if I could get it to work.
I appealed to my Dad, and after fiddling for a bit, he couldn’t get it to work either. The project was due on Monday, and IT DIDN’T WORK. AT ALL.
What happened after that was a little fuzzy, but knowing myself in 8th grade I threw a major fit, complete with stomping, door slamming, and rude sarcasm. Completely justified. In direct contrast to when my children stomp, slam their doors, and give me lip. Inexcusable!
“Why don’t you just write up why you think it didn’t work?” my mother suggested.
Using our Dot Matrix Printer attached to our 386 (Pops was really into computers so we had cutting edge tech), I printed all of the reasons why I thought my experiment was a failure, pasted it onto light blue construction paper and mounted it on the tri-fold board. To make the farce even more farcical, I covered the piece of wood my project was built on with baby blue felt.
I won the school science fair.
Then I placed second in the county.
I learned three lessons from that experience that have stuck with me to this day:
- Failure is not intrinsically bad, especially if you can learn from it.
- If you do fail, own it. People respect that.
- Different is interesting. In row after row of volcanoes, not only was mine Not A Volcano, but it didn’t work either.
Today I am adding a fourth lesson.
The project was clearly done by the student, because no adult would turn in a non-working science project.
The absurdity of group work for kids
Consider, for a moment, a person who thinks “Nanny-nanny-boo-boo” is sufficient justification to hit another person.
Now consider four people exactly like this, and they all have to work towards a common good.
Sounds stupid, doesn’t it?
Group work for elementary school children is a pointless exercise in trying to do the right thing in precisely the wrong way. Children are not taught how to do group projects. They are not taught how to schedule their meetings. How to plan the work. How to divide the work into manageable bits they can do independently. These are all real life, useful skills that whichever jackhole designed the curriculum was trying to approximate, but instead we ended up with this. Furthermore, I’m not even sure you can teach these skills to elementary school children because they’ve only recently mastered the art of Not Crapping In Their Pants.
Nanny Nanny Boo Boo
As a parent, group projects put me in a bad position. How much do I help? Do I help set up a calendar? Break down the work? How much logistical help do I have to supply?
I would like to propose that we make it illegal to assign group projects to anyone without a driver’s license. I seriously cannot be bothered to do my own children’s projects for them, much less do the projects of other people’s childrens for them.
It’s Tuesday. I have just been informed that my daughter has a group team meeting that was decided on that day for a project due tomorrow. The “how we got to this point” is still a little murky, but it doesn’t really matter because it’s now 7 PM the night before the project is due.
Of the roughly 50 PowerPoint slides the team of fourth graders has committed to doing, they’ve completed 6. There is a decided lack of adult intervention on the project, which I am normally in favor of, but in this case all of my internal alarms are going off and red flags are raised. There is too much to do and not enough time to do it, and to top it all off there’s 3 kids watching the fourth kid type, because this is how children collaborate when electronics are involved.
Unable to get over the feeling that something was going horribly wrong, I returned to the friend’s house where I had dropped off my daughter so the team could work. I am the only adult in the room with 4 fourth graders, and I am only biologically responsible for one. How to get them done sometime before midnight while at the same time not doing doing the project entirely for them?
I wheedle. I coax. I talk pep.
I take over the laptop and do the typing.
I split up the children into sub tasks.
I suggest wordings.
I give in because I want to go home.
Kids learn how to work together by playing together, which we as a society might have forgotten because we’re not allowed to test our children on how well they play. No, sports don’t count, sports is play with a purpose defined by adults. Play is “LET’S TAKE TURNS CHASING EACH OTHER BECAUSE CHASING IS FUN, OKAY? OKAY!”
I could have let my daughter stay until 9 o’clock and then taken her home. She wouldn’t have finished, the group wouldn’t have finished, and they would have failed.
The wrong kind of failure
What could my daughter learn? She can’t own the failure- she’s in 4th grade.
She’s can’t drive.
She can barely get out of bed unassisted in the morning, so expecting her to coordinate the schedules of three other 4th graders is probably right out too.
There’s nothing teachable there, besides “my dad is a jerk and won’t help me with my project.”
Parents are by circumstance too involved in group projects for there to be a freedom to fail. We are too experienced. We feel the bonds and obligations of parental society. We don’t want to be That Parent. We don’t want to let down The Group. What we have lost in our drive to “prepare kids for the future” is that we are skipping out on a lot of the in-between stuff. In our rush to turn our kids into collaborative, articulate, STEM-obsessed China crushers, we’re forgetting how we ourselves got here, and it wasn’t through obsessing about STEM.
Science is fun. Technology can be amazing. Engineering is making stuff, which is also cool. Math is the glue that holds the other three together and can be actually fun. I didn’t even know what STEM was until I was in my 30s, but I loved all my science classes.
STEM is an acronym made up by people who have an agenda, and that agenda is to make money off our fears that we’re not good enough. It is impossible for me to allow my kids to have the same kind of freedom to fail as I did on my solo project when they are working on a group project. Ultimately, their project worked and they were happy, and we got home by 10.
They are worse for it.