The Art of Making Mistakes

JJ and I were teaching a class last week to K-2 graders on building bridges. While we had showed them some techniques, a lot of the kids, especially the younger ones, had some trouble building the part of the bridge that is suspended in the air.

It is not immediately obvious, I admit, to figure out how to get a bunch of 2×2 and 2×4 blocks to form a span between two columns on either side. Many kids were inclined to build the span off the end of one of the (not so steady) columns, working their way across, carefully interweaving the 2×4 bricks. (It turns out no matter how many times you show them how to build it on the ground first, some kids just really want to build it in the air. More fun, I guess.)

Building a bridge up in the air is really hard so it wasn’t surprising to the grown-ups in the room when the bridge the kids had been steadfastly working on suddenly crumpled when the column broke in half or when the span came off the column at the top.  Even those who had followed our suggestions of building it on the ground first, sometimes struggled to get the bridge attached without crumbling their columns.

I watched the reaction of the kids when their creations faltered under the pressure of attaching new bricks at precarious angles or from pushing too hard on the bridge span at an odd angle when it wasn’t lined up properly. Crack. Thud. All their work was now sitting in front of them in pieces. Some kids picked it up and started over again. A fair number however, got visibly frustrated. Some cried. Other blurted out, “I can’t do this!” or “This is never gonna work!” JJ or I (usually JJ, because he’s much better at this than I am) would go and sit with them and encourage them to try and figure out what went wrong and help them find a way to make it work.

It occurred to me that these types of engineering classes are a great place to teach kids about making mistakes and learning from them, which I regard as a critical skill in developing curious and productive young minds. In a culture such as ours where everyone is a winner and well-meaning parents do everything they can to keep their kids from experiencing disappointment, we may be inadvertently creating kids that are afraid of messing up, lack resilience and don’t have the psychological tools to learn from their mistakes. (For more an interesting take on this, see this recent article in Psychology Today.)

And yet, to be an innovator, to be creative and to invent new ideas and approaches that will have an impact on society when they are adults, kids today need to learn the art of learning from their mistakes. And you can’t learn from mistakes unless you have the opportunity to make mistakes in a safe environment where the downside is limited and someone or something can help you figure out where you went wrong. It seems like we have an opportunity in Ascendly and other STEM projects to create this type of environment, which is another reason why this whole endeavor is so enormously worthwhile.