No one taught us to fail. Why and how you should change that.

Since childhood we learn mistakes are the worst. You get scored poorly, you get scolded, you fail. This also applies to sports and arts. Even socially, you get signaled, they make fun of you. Failing is definitely not something to look forward to.

They teach us to be ashamed of our mistakes. We learn to fail in private because if we try and fail, everyone will laugh. They’ll signal it’s wrong to take risks. It’s wrong not to appear perfect. It’s wrong not to be a pro.

How to practice effectively…for just about anything — Annie Bosler and Don Greene

But how will you ever learn if you don’t fail? If you don’t try the limits of your comfort zone? The most effective practice is that which targets our specific weaknesses. How will we identify them if we do not fail? How will we hone our students abilities if we don’t push them to take risks?

Why we must change this

No one learns to ride a bycicle by reading the instructions. On Creativity Inc. Andrew Stanton comments on the importance of learning to fail fast, fail often and fail as safely as possible. From an industrial perspective is safer and less expensive to identify mistakes sooner and adjust the project’s direction.

“Just get a bycicle as close to the ground as possible, wear some elbow pads, a helmet and get going.”

Do you know why the aviation industry has less accidents each year? Because they share their mistakes. On Black Box Thinking, Matthew Syed makes the importance of common learning through error documentation something unignorable. Failing behind closed doors is not the smartest move.

Nobel Prize in Physics Richard Feynman considered being wrong as the ultimate opportunity to learn and improve. After all, physics sustains on the scientific method. Hypothesis implies you might get it wrong after experimentation. It doesn’t mean you’re done. Just adjust, make a new hypothesis and get going. Even more, it reinforces humility. Talk about core and sof skills in one.

Being able to actually learn from mistakes involves both feedback and evaluation.

How to teach in an error-safe environment

Everything sounds great but I still have to give marks and report grades to my school board. I know. Stay with me, I’ve got you covered.

  1. Get involved in work development soon and often. Make your students comfortable with the idea of sharing something that isn’t perfect yet. This also means making sure the task is in the right track before they spend time in polish and details. Plus, you can keep an eye on the evolution of the project considering delivery date.
  2. Introduce them early to iteration processes. Iteration makes it ok to take risks. I’ve tried design sprint and some sort of scrum methodology for period and final projects of high school and university students with great results.
  3. Make them think about explorations rather than deliveries. Teach them how to research. Hypothesis, experimentation, reframing the problem. Just as any scientist would do. The important thing is what they are learning with each cycle.
  4. Grade documentation and ask them to share their mistakes. Teach your students to document their process and their errors. Explain them how to write (and read) a post-mortem. You can even consider this in your grading categories. In that way, you are inviting them to take the risk.
  5. Give a ponderation for every step but save the best for the final delivery. You know, if something is not to be graded it may never get done. You have to link a percentage of the final mark to every iniciative you have with your students dynamic. To keep them motivated and sell the “fail fast, fail often” argument, reserve the biggest percentage of the mark for the final delivery. They’ll be delighted and you’ll be able to score both fairly and with good grace.

Disclaimer: We are talking about mistakes caused by trying, by actually putting an effort and achieving a missmatched result. We are not talking about mistakes made by not trying: not paying attention, not trying, or just not working.

+7 years experience on education industry. Marketing, academia, customer success, instructional design and e-learning development and management.