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Free Standing Failure 1 hour

Failure in life is inevitable. It can be rough and can be life-changing. But the failure itself isn’t the issue.  It is how we respond to failure that can make all the difference. Too many times failure is seen as this big and ugly experience that we all should avoid at any cost, even at the cost of growing as an individual. How we teach failure and how students perceive failure is 100% up to the adults in their lives. Failure is not flunking a test or a class. Failure is something that one can gain from, learn from, or provide guidance. Failure should be anticipated, not avoided. Imagine if we approached academics with this in mind…

In groups, students approach a difficult task full of failure and interventions.

Set Up:

  1. Knowing the personalities of your students and how they work with other personalities in the class, strategically divide the class into groups of no more than 5 students each.
  2. For however many groups there will be, fill a box/container with noodles and tape. Each box needs to have a different kind of noodle and a different kind of tape as compared to all the other boxes.
  3. An example of how your division MIGHT look COULD be:
    1. Box 1 – Fettuccini noodles and duct tape
    2. Box 2 – Lasagna noodles and masking tape
    3. Box 3 – Spaghetti noodles and scotch tape
    4. Box 4 – A mixture of all types of noodles and painters tape
  4. Each box/container will need to have enough of the noodles and tape to complete the task listed in the explanation below.
  5. A reminder: You need to be very strategic in how you word the directions you give to students. Don’t give too much information inadvertently.


Divide the class into groups of no more than five students each. Give each group a box/container of noodles and tape.

Take students to the football field goal post. If you do not have access to this type of setting, find a setting that allows access to a ten foot vertical (even if it is just a wall in which you mark the ten foot vertical).

Give the students the following directions just as they are written below:

“Your task is to build a free-standing structure using the contents in your box. By free-standing, I mean that the structure must be able to stand on its own without being attached to or leaning against anything in order to stay upright. Your structure must reach the bottom of the goal post (or ____). The first group to achieve this task wins. I will provide no further assistance or information until the end of the task.”

Make sure you do not say “…using ONLY the contents of your box” as you want to see which groups attack this task by literally thinking “outside the box”. Read those instructions to students just as they are written above, without adding additional words or commentary.

During the process, you are not to answer any questions or provide any reinforcing or corrective feedback. Let the groups succeed or fail on their own.

Groups are free to use anything at their disposal, although you are not to tell them that ahead of time, just don’t try to stop them if they begin to use things in addition to their box contents.

Halfway Point:

Once the majority of the groups have gotten their structures nearly half way to their vertical goals, walk to each group and make the following changes without talking to the students or reacting to their reactions:

  • Group One – Give them more noodles and two other types of tape.
  • Group Two – Remove the top twelve inches of their structure and destroy it or keep it to where they no longer have access to it.
  • Group Three – Remove any remaining contents that they have sitting INSIDE their box.
  • Group Four – Replace half of their remaining/unused noodles with macaroni noodles.
  • Group Five – Give them glue.
  • Group Six – Give them one package of zip ties or pipe cleaners.
  • Group Seven – Give them a chair.

Ending Discussion

When the first group wins and their tower is truly free-standing, have students stand near their structures in groups and lead the following debriefing session by asking each group to respond to each question:

  1. At the beginning of the task, when I finished reading the instructions and you looked inside your box, how did you feel about your chances of winning?
  2. Did you look at what the other groups had in their boxes? Why or why not? If you did, how did that make you feel to realize they had different contents?
  3. How many times did you wish you could ask me for help or advice? How did it feel knowing you were on your own?
  4. How did each individual in your group react to the moments of failure or doubt?
  5. Who was most optimistic in your group? Who was the best motivator in your group? Who was the best problem solver of your group? Who created the most conflict in your group?
  6. When I came and made changes to each group’s situation, did you feel like a victim at any point? Did you find yourself thinking what I did was unfair? Or, if I helped your group out, did you find yourself getting cocky as compared to the other groups?
  7. Call attention to which groups thought outside the box and which ones didn’t. Ask why they each approached the tower building the way they did.
  8. How would your group change what you did now that the task is over?

Closing Statement & Assignment

“The point of doing this activity was because I wanted you to experience difficulty and I wanted you to fail. I wanted you to fail so you could see what your natural reaction to competition, failure, and unequal circumstances is and see how you forged through each of those emotions. 

We have been talking for several class periods about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and we have done so in a very simplistic way. Life is never simple. Life is always throwing you curveballs, knocking you to your knees, giving your neighbor more than it gives you, etc. Life is not easy and you will never achieve self-actualization until you can cope and rebound from failure and until you learn how to overcome obstacles and difficult tasks. 

There is a saying that ‘failure is not an option’, but I would add to that, that failure is inevitable. It is quitting or giving up that can’t be an option.”


In order to provide students with some context to their ability to take on struggles in their life and the inevitable experience of failure, we introduce them to GRIT – “Grit is passion and perseverance for long-term goals” ~ Angela Duckworth

Share this article, Treat Failure Like a Scientist by James Clear, with students and ask them to think specifically about the following bullet points and use for class discussion:

Treat failure like data points – why is this a different approach to failure than most?

Failure is simply a cost you have to pay on the way to being right- What do you think about this statement?

Let’s see how students perceive their own level of grit. Have them take the GRIT test  12 Pt Grit Scale Assessment  and jot down a summary of their results in a journal entry. 

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