Learning and Failure

Learning and Failure

Jesse Martin 25/05/2023
Learning and Failure

Learning is at the heart of who we are. If we stop learning, we stop living.

Somehow, we have forgotten the importance of learning in our rush to memorize the right answer. Learning has been reduced to little more than a few words in the right order at the right time. We spend too much time memorizing what to say. Learning to write focuses on form, not substance. Not just writing, our learning in its entirety has become a stylized game of right and wrong.

As any of the learned or wise will tell you, making mistakes is the foundation of wisdom. We fall, pick ourselves up, and fall again. It is when we quit trying to pick ourselves up that we stop learning and die – even though we may still be breathing. To progress at all means that we will fail.

Failure is as much a part of life as succeeding, and yet we live in a time when failure means shame. Making a mistake is wrong – wrong – a morally weighted word that says bad, bad, bad. We have forgotten that progress is almost an equal part success and failure with the final success being the achievement.

Not in today’s world. To fail is wrong, bad, and shameful. The world, with education leading the charge, forces us to live in this state, and as a result, we refuse to try. Rather than try and fail, we simply don’t try. How many of our children reach this stage of life in middle school? If I don’t try, I can accept that I have done wrong, failed, and I am bad. My heart was broken last week when I was visiting my daughter. She looked at something on her phone and asked my 14-year-old grandson what happened on his science test. He said that he thought he had done fairly well. She shook her head and simply stated, “You got an ‘F’”. Fourteen-year-olds aren’t supposed to cry – but he did. He said, “But mom, I tried and thought I did ok. I don’t even know why I try anymore.”. Remember that “F” stands for failure.

It isn’t just the struggling students who dread mistakes (remember, mistake=wrong=bad=failure). Students on the other end of the grade spectrum feel the same way. Students with high grades are the least likely to try something different. They virtually always choose the path that is the least likely to lead to a. mistake (failure). They are not creative. They are not brave. They play it safe so that their success is not threatened by the possibility of failure.

When I teach university, I do not tell the students the right answers. I do not lecture. I do not examine. I make them learn. When I tell them this on the first day about a quarter of them walk out and never return. How sad. They are unwilling to take the chance to learn.

Our entire education system is designed to ensure that success does not lead to creativity. A teacher does not want to be faced with something new. We look and reward what we expect to find, not the unexpected. I recall a meeting of academics once when I asked about the student who will write “War and Peace” – the discussion was about a university-wide policy to penalize anyone going over a word count. The head of the English department laughed and stated, with derision, “No one from here will ever do something like that.” I guess not. We don’t expect it and our best and brightest will only produce what we expect so they can get the highest grade.

Is this what we really want? A guttural aversion to mistakes? The anguished cry of “Why do I even try?”. A linking of a necessary part of learning in life (mistakes) with the morally aversive word WRONG? The antipathy for the different, because it might be wrong?

All we want in life is to be right because to be wrong is bad. And we make sure our students know it.

I know that half of you will be rearing up in righteous indignation saying, “I refer to mistakes as learning opportunities, not something that is wrong!” while you reduce their pay (grade) for stumbling upon a learning opportunity.

The challenges we face in the world today will not be overcome by millions of graduates who are striving to find the right answer and viscerally avoiding doing anything wrong. Always looking for the answer that will be acceptable. The answer that will not be “wrong”. We have conditioned them to believe that learning and memorizing is the ultimate achievement (passing the test). They spend years and years practicing memorization skills to really achieve something. And we richly reward those who become the best at it.

When are we going to start thinking about it and come up with a system where we can foster learning?

Remember – to teach is to foster learning.

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Jesse Martin

Higher Education Expert

Jesse is a world leader in the integration of the science of learning into formal teaching settings. He is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Lethbridge and Director at The Academy for the Scholarship of Learning. Huge advocate of the science of learning, he provides people with ideas about how they can use it in their classrooms. Jesse holds a PhD in Psychology from the University of Wales, Bangor.

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