Try Try Again

On the first week of school, we did something a little crazy. We set up an activity that we knew the kids would fail.

By Momentous Institute | Jan 04, 2016
Try Again

On the first week of school, we did something a little crazy. We set up an activity that we knew the kids would fail. We know that sounds counter-intuitive to some. You might be thinking that we should start the year by building kids’ confidence and gradually increase the difficulty over the course of the year. But what we had in mind was something a little different. So we set up an activity that allowed them to fail, and here’s how it went.
If you’re not familiar with the spaghetti tower activity, it’s basically a challenge where people are divided into groups, and each group is given a certain number of uncooked spaghetti noodles, a strip of masking tape, and a marshmallow. The challenge is to build the tallest free-standing structure that can support a marshmallow in a certain time frame. The activity tests cooperation, creative thinking and teamwork. We gave our students this challenge, but we cut the time down. Students had only 12 minutes to build a tower. None of them could do it successfully.


Then we dove into a lesson on grit. We asked students if they knew what grit was, and we coached them into a definition that included persistence and resilience. We had a conversation about what worked and what didn’t work for each team. We talked about where conflicts bubbled up and how they navigated those. Then we sent them around the room to look at the other structures and take pictures of them.
Back at their desks, we asked them to do some research on tall towers. We named a few examples that they could look up on their tablets – the Eiffel Tower, Bao Tower, Radio Towers. We had them jot down ideas and draw a sketch of what they’d do differently. Then we moved on to a different subject.


The next day, we came back to this. We started by talking about innovation. We asked them if they thought the team who designed the Eiffel Tower had to do any planning. We told them about innovative thinkers, and we said, “Innovators have to plan.” We also told them, “Innovators fail. And then they try again.”
We gave them the materials again – a few more spaghetti noodles, a strip of tape, a marshmallow – and this time we set the timer for 15 minutes. With the knowledge from their first attempt and from their planning, about half of the groups were able to build a tower that stood on its own.
But here’s the magic. One of the kids whose tower fell down said, “It’s okay that ours didn’t win, because we had fun!” That was the WHOLE POINT. That’s exactly what we were aiming for. It’s okay to fail. We try, and try again, and we have fun.
We wanted to get this out of the way from the beginning, because it set up our classroom culture. Once we instilled it early on, it became totally acceptable to fail on a first attempt, and to go back and try again. Getting it right was not the most important thing. Learning, and having fun, were.
So even though it seemed like a crazy idea – you set your kids up to FAIL? – this simple exercise has made all the difference in our class. We refer back to it often. When things don’t pan out the way we expect, we remind them of the spaghetti activity, and they all nod their heads and get back to work.