Learning Through Trial and Error

Youth learn through cycles of strategic planning, execution, responding to emergent problems, cycles of trial and error, and reflection on outcomes.

Youth often help plan their projects, deciding on specific action steps toward their goals. They learn to anticipate project requirements and challenges, and develop appropriate plans for them. Implementing their plans sometimes involves repeated practice and trial and error. Inevitably, unexpected problems and challenges emerge as plans are executed.

Youth engage in planning, including:

  • brainstorming and generative planning;
  • thinking strategically about the purposes, methods, content, and outcomes of the project;
  • anticipatory thinking, if-then thinking (e.g., about how the work and various constraints interact), and contingency planning.

Projects in the SEL Challenge programs typically include extensive, multi-faceted planning and preparation. Planning may include generating ideas for selecting and designing the project and figuring out how to carry it out. At Wyman, initial planning begins formally with a needs assessment before generating ideas for a community service learning project. For Wyman, community service learning is a process in which youth are engaged from the beginning to the end of the volunteering experience. Facilitators or teachers help teens identify a need, plan an activity or project that addresses the need, take action, reflect on the experience, and celebrate their success.

Quote markPreparation is the planning and organization done prior to the service. Teens might conduct a needs assessment to determine what needs exist in their interest area, select an issue and project they would like to work on, and receive necessary education or training around the specific knowledge or skills required.

Youth have multiple opportunities to practice implementing the same skills to achieve greater success (e.g., by trying and trying again). Repetition is critical to learning action skills. Applying the same skills over again to the same or to slightly varying situations deepens learning. Building a wooden boat, for example, requires performing the same actions over and over again with each board: selecting, cutting, sanding.

Youth grapple with adjusting short- and long-term goals and strategies to emerging challenges and changing circumstances in their work. As real-world circumstances throw plans off-kilter, youth need to be flexible and adjust their goals according to what the new circumstances will permit. Delays may push back deadlines. In community service learning projects, goals must be adapted to the desires and cooperativeness of others and availability of resources. When youth are not able to realize a goal as they had envisioned it, reframing a “failure” as a learning opportunity and a stepping stone to success is crucial.

Further Reading

Join the Discussion

How do you equip youth with the skills to plan and execute their own goals?