Excerpted from The Invent to Learn Guide to Making in the K–3 Classroom: Why, How, and Wow! by veteran teacher Alice Baggett, published in 2016 by Constructing Modern Knowledge Press. This book is the third of a line of “Invent to Learn Guides,” published as companions to Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom.
By Alice Baggett
The most important thing you can do to set up your tinkering space for primary students has nothing to do with the space. Of course you’ll need space for your students to work in, but the physical space for tinkering matters much less than the mental space that you create for young makers.
To be effective tinkerers, students need to achieve a state of mind in which they are primed to play and make joyful discoveries.
Young kids who are playing don’t worry about making mistakes. They’re just playing, and the idea that they could make a mistake—that there’s a wrong way to play—doesn’t enter into their consciousness. It’s this freedom that enables the creation of elaborate pretend games and castles built from playground bits. Replicating a sense of play in the classroom is vital to creating a tinkering mindset for children.
One of the most powerful things you can do to set the philosophical tone in your makerspace is to hammer home the idea that taking risks, trying new things, and making mistakes are not only acceptable actions—they’re desirable actions. That’s what you’re hoping for! But telling a group of little kids that it’s okay to make mistakes is not an effective way to deliver your message. The droning voice of the teachers in the Peanuts cartoons springs to mind! To get kids to internalize your message and truly take it to heart, you have to show them in a wide variety of ways what you really mean.
Here are some ideas for getting across the idea that taking risks, trying new things, and making mistakes are desirable outcomes.
READ STORIES ABOUT MISTAKES
There are lots of good children’s books about mistake making. My absolute favorite is Barney Saltzberg’s Beautiful Oops. This short book features mistakes repackaged as something awesome! For example, a torn piece of paper becomes the smile on an alligator. Young children respond to the simplicity of the “mistakes” and the delightful revelation of the reworked mistake into something beautiful and surprising. This book is a wonderful jumping-off point for a bigger discussion about how to handle mistakes and how mistakes can lead us in new, inspiring directions.
I read this story to each of my classes at the beginning of every year, and kids ask to hear it again and again. A few weeks after I read it to a kindergarten class one year, we were working on a challenge in which students were using graphic design tools to draw on a photograph of their faces. One student carefully tried to trace his eye so he could use the paint bucket to fill the shape. He hadn’t quite managed to draw a closed shape around his eye, though, so the paint spilled all over the photograph completely covering his face. Watching from across the room, I braced myself. Sometimes students are distraught when things like this happen. Would there be tears?
This student straightened up in his chair and blurted out, “I made a beautiful oops! I know how to turn my whole page white!” The other kindergartners jumped out of their seats to come have a look at this marvelous discovery. They all wanted to know exactly how he did it so they could go try it out.
Of course, students do not always react to their mistakes this way. However, I have found that deliberately creating a climate where risk taking and mistake making are valued makes a notable difference in the way students handle mistakes.
Frequently reading stories about risk taking, failure, recovery from failure, and mistake making goes a long way toward assuring students that you actually believe in the learning that comes when students make and recover from errors. Check the list of excellent story ideas in chapter 8 for more suggestions.
ACTUALLY MAKE MISTAKES IN FRONT OF KIDS
Modeling that it really is okay to make mistakes is vital. Fortunately for most of us working in a budding makerspace with young tinkerers, there are many opportunities to publicly fail in front of students. There is so much to know and things change so quickly. Technology's unpredictability benefits us in this instance! When I’m teaching a lesson and my projector malfunctions, the demonstration program I wrote does not even begin to do what I had hoped it would, or my robot goes backward instead of forward, I take it as an opportunity to model resilience and grit. I let students see me flustered and then (hopefully) recovering. I invite them to help me diagnose what went wrong, which they LOVE.
Taking public risks and making public mistakes not only helps normalize mistake making, it inspires enthusiasm for collectively problem-solving and collaborating. All of this is a desirable part of the philosophical underpinnings of a tinkering mindset.
If you are the kind of educator who rarely makes a mistake, you can
strategically plan to make errors for students to catch. These preplanned mistakes can still help students see you as a real person who actually makes mistakes and recovers from them.
USE VISUAL REMINDERS
Posting quotations about or pictures of mistakes can go a long way toward reminding kids that you’re serious about the value of mistakes. I have James Joyce’s quote “Mistakes are the portals to discovery” displayed in huge letters on my classroom walls, and at the beginning of each year we have a discussion about exactly what the students think that quote means. At each workstation in my room I have a little sign stating, “Don’t be afraid of making a mistake. Mistakes are normal and we learn from them.”
At an art fair, I purchased a colorful print emblazoned with the phrase “Mistakes Make.” It seems like the artist accidentally got the words in the wrong order. Kids think it’s hilarious! I have a picture of my face posted in a prominent place in my classroom encircled by the words, “Ms. Baggett: Proud Mistake Maker Since 1966.” I have a series of posters I made of silhouettes of heads with famous people’s quotes about mistakes. The visual materials in my room affirm that I mean what I say about the value of making mistakes.
I start my year by having the kids do a scavenger hunt to become familiar with the room. One of the items they are supposed to search for is something that lets you know it’s okay to make a mistake. One year, as the kids were searching for all the items, I heard one girl say, “There are so many things in this room that let you know it's okay to make a mistake, but I can't find the specific one for the stupid scavenger hunt!”
HIGHLIGHT BOTH EPIC FAILS AND SPECTACULAR DISCOVERIES
To further develop the idea that risk taking and mistake making can lead to something positive, I created an Epic Fails and Spectacular Discoveries bulletin board in my room. I wanted to create a place for students to share their highest highs and their lowest lows, the idea being that the more kids talk openly and honestly about their successes and failures, the more normalized the idea that we all have highs and lows when we’re problem-solving becomes.
Students who want to participate can fill out a slip of paper (or ask me to fill it out if they’re still learning to write) that asks
them what their epic fail or spectacular discovery was, how they happened upon it, and what about it made it an epic fail or spectacular discovery. Then they post their slips on a bulletin board so that other students can read them. Kids love reading what other kids have to say, and I often have to encourage them to go back to working on their projects instead of spending all their time reading the board.
One year after I finished introducing this idea to my students for the first time, a little hand shot up with a question. “But Ms. Baggett,” the boy said, puzzled, “how do you tell the difference between an epic fail and a spectacular discovery?"
I adore this question! It gets at the fundamental nature of process -based, inquiry learning. Failure and discovery are so closely linked, so connected and interrelated, that it is very hard to distinguish between them, especially when failure leads directly to discovery and vice versa.
EMPHASIZE THAT A MISTAKE IS NOT THE END
I have all sorts of old projects lying around my room. Students love to look at them, but they also find them intimidating because most of the projects are physical objects in a final state. They look perfect and finished. Students have a hard time envisioning the steps that led up to the final object's creation: all they see is the incredibly cool final iteration.
To help students understand the messy process of creation, I ask students to track their progress during any project (much more about this in chapter 6). Tracking a project’s progress helps illuminate the many mistakes along the way. Students looking at old projects can look up the reflection and documentation fellow students did on a given challenge to get a fuller picture of what happened along the way. It’s fun to see how many challenges a student has to overcome to complete a project. Students have the chance to internalize the idea that continuing to work even when a seemingly insurmountable obstacle presents itself is vital to learning and growing.
TALK ABOUT THE PROCESS
Kids enjoy sharing what is happening with their work on a project, and it’s great for other students to hear their peers talking about all the different challenges and successes they’ve experienced. Peer-to-peer sharing also opens the door for collaboration and collective problem-solving when a student is unsure of how to move past an obstacle.
I regularly invite students to teach their classmates. Students address their peers, explaining and demonstrating their mistakes
and discoveries. It is not unusual for them to have so much to say that I must gently help them wrap things up. Talking about the messy process of making is thrilling to students, who although they cannot always recognize why this appeals to them, appreciate the focus on their learning process instead of their final product.
Alice Baggett has been a teacher for over two decades. She holds a BA in archaeology from Oberlin College and an MA in education from Florida International University. This book is aimed at educators of primary school students who want to teach STEM and other subjects in a hands-on, minds-on way that engages and delights.