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Revelling in ‘failure’

One of my earliest posts on this blog was about a trial project in preparation for project based learning which has begun in earnest this academic year. I wanted to write a short post about the first full blown project that I ran with my new class. The project had a PSHE theme and was to make a board game that involved answering questions about the other members of the class so that we could all get to know each other.

The best place to start this story is at the end. On the Friday of that week I stood looking at ‘finished’ projects which were drying in my art corner. With no hint of unkindness it looked like an art supply store had exploded into one sludgy brown gloop in my art corner, and that an army of wedding guests had sprinkled badly cut up scraps of paper over what was supposed to represent a weeks learning. For a moment I felt utterly deflated. A whole week had culminated in this. Had the learning objective been to create a board game it was undoubtedly a total failure. When I had attempted to play these games with the children only one had worked. All the others were incredibly over complicated or not at all thought through. Most were not finished.

I left my classroom that evening buzzing because despite this, I had realised the stunning potential of project based learning. The learning throughout the week had been amazing. I left the children almost entirely to their own devices in terms of what they were doing. Naturally I foresaw the problems as they came along but resisted swooping in and trying to fix them. As a result the children came up against problems such as I am not going to get finished in time, I don’t have enough questions cards to last the whole game, I have not prioritised the important things I needed to do, I didn’t plan for this or my game doesn’t work. The power of allowing the children to actually come face to face with their problems and then learn from them and attempt to solve them, surprised me. I realised how damaging ‘swooping’ can be to the learning process. It is the educational equivalent of never allowing a child to take risks. They don’t learn how to manage the risk properly if all you ever do is take it away or warn them about it. It seems so daft and obvious when you write it in black and white, but I am willing to bet that other teachers are doing the same thing.

I spent a great deal of time trying to foster a problem solving attitude in class this week. I also did a detailed evaluation with each child one to one to discuss the problems that thy had come across and what they would do differently next time. Usually evaluation in primary school is a very hollow process. But by allowing the children to fail I opened an opportunity for genuine evaluation that was significant to the children. They realised that they hadn’t left enough time, or that they hadn’t fully thought through the game and were really positive about applying those lessons to the next project.

The next project is well underway and the difference is unreal. In terms of planning prioritising and problem solving it is the fastest progress I have ever seen. They are still a long way from being able to be successful entirely independently and this time an am supporting them a little more closely in that I am ensuring they are acting on lessons learnt. For the first time in my career I can see how I will start to move on children who previously seemed unaccessible and impossible to engage.

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