The Hidden Power of Sixth-Grade STEM Week

By Kathleen Smith, Assistant Head of School

Thomas Edison famously said of creating the light bulb: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Experts in the field of education are currently researching and writing furiously about the “gift of failure” and the power it has to unlock creativity and innovation in our students. In his 2012 Harvard Business Review article entitled “The No. 1 Enemy of Creativity: Fear of Failure,” Peter Sims reminds us that “the odds are you were never, at any point in your educational or professional career, given permission to fail,” which puts us at risk of “disempowering yourself from exercising your inherent creativity.”

STEM WeekWe all agree that allowing for failure and growth and creating opportunities for students to be creative and innovative is essential to the development of their intellectual and moral character, of course. Now comes the hard part, if you’re a parent or an educator. At a primal level, we don’t really want our students to fail. Failure, despite all of its current good press, is often very painful. So how do we reconcile what’s in our heads and what’s in our hearts when we are dealing with young children and adolescents?

STEM WeekFirst, we reframe our definition of “failure” and internalize the idea that failure does not have to be a catastrophic endeavor. Second, we scaffold these opportunities so that students develop resilience over time and do not fall apart the moment they encounter a challenge. The sixth-graders’ recent STEM-immersion experience – a week during which they were encouraged to embrace failure and try, try again as they explored the world of bioplastics and polymers – provided exactly such an opportunity. The week-long chemical engineering workshop, developed by i2 Learning and researchers at Boston’s Museum of Science, challenged students to investigate, imagine, plan, create, test, improve, and communicate as they created bouncy balls, silly putty, and their own bioplastics. Reading the students’ reflections on their experiences was fascinating; they wrote not with frustration, but with joy about their failures and their perseverance when conducting attempt after attempt.
One sixth-grader wrote: “My best memory of STEM week was probably when I made the
car out of bioplastic. My group worked together really well, and we accomplished our goal. On the first try, we thought that we had made our mold perfectly. When we tried to put the pencils in, it just broke in half and we had to try again. On the second try, we made the base thicker and we made the wheels a lot bigger. It seemed like it would work, but the wheels wouldn’t harden and when we put the pencils in, it broke in half again. On the third try, we couldn’t make new bioplastic, so we used half of the second base and cut it into a circle. We had two wheels, so we melted our shavings down to more bioplastic. One of my group members had brought skewers instead of pencils, so we stuck those in and put the wheels on. It rolled!”

What a shame it would have been for one of my colleagues or me to step in with “TheSTEM Week
Answer” to these children’s questions as they puzzled through their initial “failures.” Encouraging students to ask their own questions – guided by faculty who embraced the open-ended, inquiry-based approach of the week – was essential to developing their intellectual toughness and grit. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Hackett Fischer observed that questions “are the engines of intellect – cerebral machines that convert curiosity into controlled inquiry.” In keeping with our professional development focus on inquiry-based learning this year, faculty feedback about the program centered on the need to continue to provide opportunities for students to practice this “controlled inquiry” throughout their years at Langley, for them to formulate questions and tough it out with scaffolded teacher support. Such practice begins to impart to students that failure is not just okay, but necessary. The world will not end if something doesn’t go right the first time. When students push past that 10,000th try that “doesn’t work” and come up with their working light bulb, they will have achieved something personally and intellectually meaningful. And all of the failures will have been worth it.

We are thrilled to be offering another intensive STEM week this year! Our fourth-graders will investigate the world of programming during their workshop, “Building a Friendly, Interactive Monster,” coming in January!

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Celebrating the Preschool to Eighth Grade Years

By Kathleen Smith, Assistant Head of School

I write this having just spent the day with our spirited and talented seventh-7th Supreme Courtgrade class, five of the most dedicated and inspiring colleagues anyone could ask for… oh, and Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. After a morning spent touring the U.S. Capitol, our social studies field trip group moved on to the Supreme Court where we were treated, thanks to a Langley parent who had clerked for Justice Kennedy, to a private half-hour session with the justice and one of his clerks in the Lawyers’ Lounge of the land’s highest court.

While we know Justice Kennedy to be a powerful Constitutional scholar and leader, we were all struck by his engaging manner with our middle school-aged students. He was remarkable, and the students (and faculty!) left the meeting a bit star-struck and ready to review our copies of the Constitution when we arrived home, per his suggestion.

A field trip like this certainly makes me, a native of Boston, feel lucky to live and teach in the metro-D.C. area. What I thought about on the bus ride back to school, however, was how lucky I am to teach middle school in a preschool to eighth grade school. In a K-12 school, it would certainly not be the seventh-graders who were chosen for a plum opportunity like this. Private audiences with Supreme Court justices would be reserved for the upper school Student Council or the AP U.S. history class.

Middle school students at Langley, as we know well, are our leaders. They are the ones to whom younger students look for inspiration and mentorship. We look to our middle schoolers to represent us internationally in Costa Rica or locally by volunteering at So Others Might Eat (SOME), and we are never disappointed. We are proud when they leave the Langley nest and live our shared values in their new high school communities.

Recent studies out of Columbia, Johns Hopkins, and Duke universities have borne out what Langley parents have known for decades. PK-8 schools provide an approach that both meets the unique developmental needs of their students and provides for superior academic achievement, particularly for those in their middle school years. While these studies largely investigated public middle school settings, they provide research that supports what I regularly posit to anyone who will listen: this is the best model for kids, period.

We know that in K-12 schools, resources and attention are disproportionately given to upper school programs. How lucky we are, as teachers and students at Langley, to work and learn in an environment that celebrates the unique developmental stage that occurs during the middle school years, rather than one that makes students wait until they reach the capstone high school years to discover their passions, to have authentic leadership opportunities, to stretch themselves academically.

As Justice Kennedy told our seventh-graders, they will inherit this democracy very soon, and they have a responsibility to understand what that entails. I am confident that our students will understand and be equipped to take on that mantle in myriad ways. And they will be able to do so thanks in large part to the opportunities they were afforded during their formative years, the preschool to eighth grade years at The Langley School.