Should I let them fail? 

This is the question a PBL facilitator I coach called me up with three days ago.

His current project ask students, in teams, to generate sustainable solutions for unused spaces on the campus they just moved into. In less than a week, teams will pitch their ideas to the School Board and Admin.

But here’s the problem…

While two teams’ ideas seem feasible, the facilitator is worried that due to bureaucratic red tape, safety restrictions, costs, and building codes, one team’s idea will fail miserably.

What should he do? Let them fail?

I’m sure as a project facilitator, you have faced a similar dilemma. Step in and save the team, and they miss out on a valuable real world lesson; let them proceed, and you risk crushing their spirits.

But here’s the part of this story that’s missing…

Students will pitch designs to the School Board without first conducting feasibility studies; presenting to peers; evaluating their design against a success rubric; generating alternative solutions.

They are being asked to think and act like urban designers, without being equipped with all the necessary tools.

Here’s how I might approach this dilemma:

  1. Co-Create a Success Rubric: Work with the class to generate a three column rubric with project specific language to assess their designs against. (ie. feasibility, design, value) This will help teams enhance their designs before pitch day.
  2. Look at Existing Models: Together as a class, look at pre-existing models for urban spaces. Discuss their features, pros/cons, and use them as a context for the degree of professionalism each team addresses their work and project pitch.
  3. Run peer feedback rounds: Have each team present their ideas to peers for feedback. Facilitate the feedback by asking peers to offer two stars and a wish. This will help project teams identify blind spots prior to pitch day.
  4. Use tools for alternative idea generation: Require each project team to generate at least 3 alternative designs for the unused space. Use an idea generation technique like ‘IDEA SLAM’ to come up with 40+ ideas in 5 minutes. (Set a 5 minute timer, supply post-its; 4 person team stands around table, and each writes one idea on post-it. One team member reads idea aloud, slams on the table; other team members say, ‘yes, and,’ and generate supplement to that idea on another post-it). This will allow teams to have alternative ideas if the School Board rejects their first.

Finally, failure is always an option.

Sometimes harsh critique from real world expert evaluators is EXACTLY the lesson some students need.

But as project facilitators, we should at least provide them with the tools to make their presentation shine.

Co-creating a success rubric, looking at professional models, running peer feedback rounds, and using tools for idea generation will help all teams feel confident on pitch day- even if their idea is rejected!

Have other ideas for how to foster project success while also allowing for failure? Please share them so I can add them to this blog post!