It’s an ‘impossible lesson’ in De Voorde school, a Building Learning Power school in Drachten, The Netherlands. 

The children are meeting from various classes for their once a week lesson where they are learning to experience failure. The children have been chosen because they are “high achievers’  who have an adversity to challenge. This fixed mindset around learning may have developed for various reasons – well-meaning relatives, teachers and friends who have always told them they are “smart”, not often experiencing challenges as learning has too-often been easy for them. You may have children in your class who approach learning in the same way – When a challenge comes along they might say, “oh, that’s easy, I don’t need to try” or “I’m not that interested” to avoid trying, or, in extreme cases, they might completely lose patience and go into a self-defeating mode when faced with a challenge.

The question is, how do we unpick and stretch this mindset – move from “fixed” to “growth” – purposefully and intentionally? And, if we don’t, what’s the cost?

In this lesson, the children were asked to complete an “impossible task” of balancing wooden pieces to make a sculpture. A picture of the sculpture was shown on the IWB and the children were asked to collaborate in small groups to replicate the sculpture. They weren’t told the task would be “impossible”, they were just invited to try.

Whilst the children grappled with the problem, the teacher took on the role of observer, noticing strategies children used, their attitudes to learning, how well they coped with failure. At the end of the lesson, she was going to invite them to grade themselves on their effort – to examine the process of learning.

Wondering: How often do we step back as educators, allowing children the chance to grapple and solve problems by themselves and with others? How tempted are we to “jump in” and save them during this struggle? How do we resist this temptation?

One of the children explained how he had graded himself a “10” because he had persevered, collaborated and observed and learned from others. Later, I was told that before taking part in these lessons, he would have found it very hard to engage with failure, would have given up very easily and would have found it difficult to self-regulate during this process. Quite a contrast! I wonder what a difference that will make to his future endeavors, efforts and enjoyment of the challenges of life?

I would have liked to have dug deeper on this ’10’ because even our effort is never perfect and there’s always a moment or action in our learning we can reflect on and improve. We were conversing between Dutch and English though so we didn’t quite get that far! 

My wonderings:

1) How are we being creative thinkers as teachers and leaders to manage timetables and lesson structures so that children have their needs met, not only academically, but socially, emotionally, inter-personally and intellectually too?

2) Are we, as practitioners, planning in “impossible learning” so students regularly get to experience and reflect on failure?

3) How often do we give students the time to reflect on the process of their learning and to incrementally improve (or in Building Learning Power, “stretch their learning muscles”)

4) What could be put in place sooner so that children develop a growth mindset as early as possible? 

I would love to hear your reflections and thoughts. Please comment below and/or tag me on Twitter.

This post is part of our “Book Club” discussion in Learning Pioneers on Bill Lucas and Ellen Spencer’s book “Teaching Creative Thinking”. You can find out more and join our discussions here.

Thank you to De Voorde School and BLP Consultant, Anton de Vries for accommodating me and showing me around.


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