Why it’s OK to fail: empowering students to discover

By November 17th, 2016 at 1:54 pm | Comment

By Lea Shell

Middle school students are presented with a bucket of what, at first glance, looks like dirt. They pull handfuls onto their lab bench and carefully begin to sift.

“I found a shark tooth!” one student exclaims,  prompting the other students to peer more intently at their own piles. Before long, they see that the 10-million-year-old sediment that they’re sifting through—rejected from a nearby phosphate mine in North Carolina—contains the fossil remains of sharks. Some students go through several handfuls before finding a tooth, some just “get lucky,” but they’re all reaching into the bucket to see what they can discover.

A middle school student participating in the Students Discover Academy at Knightdale High School in Wake County, N.C., sorts through sediment while searching for shark tooth fossils. Photo Credit: Lea Shell CC BY-NC 2.0

A middle school student participating in the Students Discover Academy at Knightdale High School in Wake County, N.C., sorts through sediment while searching for shark tooth fossils. Photo Credit: Lea Shell CC BY-NC 2.0

One student, feeling particularly unlucky, realized that he had been looking in the “discard” bin for the duration of the time. At first he felt like a failure—but then he found some very tiny teeth that his classmates had looked over. What felt like failure actually became a new discovery.

Freedom, risk and trust play a role in learning – but we often have a hard time encouraging teachers, administrators, scientists and students to accept that it’s OK for an experiment to “fail” or to venture into the unknown.

Embracing Failure

To explore this idea of embracing failure, I reached out to our cohort of middle school teachers and postdoctoral research scientists in Students Discover, an NSF-funded partnership between the Kenan Fellows Program, the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation, The Science House and North Carolina State University

“I have a very hard time getting students to understand that failure is not bad,” said Students Discover fellow Christopher Clark, a middle school art teacher at the Chicod School in Pitt County, N.C.

“Not trying at all is one hundred times worse. Students understand that they learn more from failing, but most of them so desperately don’t want to ‘fail’ that they don’t push their limit or test their boundaries,” he said, “Maybe we just need a new word for it altogether.”

When failure leads to discovery

What does “failure” actually look like?  Our middle school shark paleontologists take detailed measurements and record their data for use by scientists at NC State and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. Their work is part of a Shark Tooth Forensics, a citizen science project developed by paleontologist Bucky Gates. Taking these measurements doesn’t come naturally, and students find that they sometimes must redo the measurements two or three times before getting an accurate number.

Is not getting the measurement right the first time “failure?” No. They’re going through the same process as the scientists: asking questions, collecting data, double-checking their work and, in some cases, digging through the trash. Students may not get the expected answer on the first try, but it’s up to them to make improvements so the data are correct for submission.

The objective isn’t to “get an A” at shark teeth measurement, instead it’s to set up a classroom where it’s safe for students to explore a new topic while building their skillset and appreciation for the fossil record.

“I think the teachers learned that while research is conducted in a methodical way, there is an element of flexibility that allows us to explore and embrace the unexpected,” said Dr. DeAnna Beasley, assistant professor in the Department of Biology, Geology and Environmental Science at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

When asked to reflect on her experience partnering with middle school teachers in the lab, she noted, “I think that is a point that is lost when teaching science: There is so much about the natural world we don’t know and seeing that as exciting, not flawed, is what keeps science a dynamic and engaging endeavor.”

And that’s precisely our goal: to get students involved in authentic scientific research so they see themselves in the entire process: asking questions, designing and implementing experiments and then finally making sense of their data and communicating what they’ve learned. We can’t wait to hear about all of the incredible things that students discover.


Lea Shell is the Curator of Digital Media at North Carolina State University working with Rob R. Dunn to engage scientists, educators and students in citizen science through the NSF-funded initiative, Students Discover.

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