Focus on Problems You Have Never Solved Before: Failure is Always an Option

by Emily Jones

Emily Jones

Many gifted students have learned to play the game of school: they memorize the answer to make the teacher happy and receive the desired grade. All too often, they never get to experience failure. This environment is not suited for learning how to problem-solve and overcome issues in the real world. Our goal in Problems You’ve Never Solved Before is for students to rethink the definition of failure. We want to give the students an opportunity to learn from failing.  

Over the past two weeks students have gained experiences in engineering, problem solving, and learning what it means to grow from an experience. The first day of class was one of the most exciting since the first “problem they have never solved before” was to find their teacher! With Catherine Poteet on Zoom, the students were put in pairs and given a variety of puzzles to solve for clues on where she was in the building.  

A more typical class day consists of students building something, solving puzzles, and improving their collaboration skills. Their tasks can be anything from building a bridge made of spaghetti and marshmallows, creating a package in which a Pringles chip can survive being shipped to a different state, or even designing a crossbow that will shoot a straw with the farthest distance and best accuracy! For every build, they get a chance to redo their design and improve on it. The students haven shown incredible creativity. Their inventiveness and willingness to dive in has allowed them to get so much out of the projects and encouraged us to pour in that much more!

The Problems You Have Never Solved Before class with one of their builds.

When we are not building, we are solving murder mysteries and bank robberies or talking to professionals in a variety of STEM fields. Our class has had the privilege of talking to Don Carson, a former Imagineer for Disney theme parks and a current art director and designer, as well as Sarah Thomas, an alum of VAMPY who works in prosthetics. Both gave wonderful perspectives on careers and advice for the students.

As a future teacher, I have had an amazing experience seeing students go through “productive struggle.” As I mentioned earlier, many students avoid failure. They like to get the right answer/outcome the first time. This approach, however, often leads to students memorizing information for a short period of time and not retaining anything. In the hopes of breaking this way of thinking, we force students to figure out solutions for themselves. The struggle before, during, and after solving a problem is the sweet spot where learning and growth occur. As future problem solvers, these students are gaining so much from pushing through and overcoming challenges. I am so excited to see in this last week their continued development of ideas, creativity, and love for learning.