Zero to One, warns us about fetishizing failure. He hates the old mantra about entrepreneurs having to fail to succeed. Failure, he thinks, can hurt those that fail, as well as the collateral damage that failed businesses bring – job losses, people not getting paid, suppliers with unpaid bills and bankruptcies. He has a point but in the learning process, failure that is limited to the individual, is most certainly a good thing. This blog is called PlanB, in recognition that we have a lot to learn from failure. In fact, it is an essential and, some would argue, necessary condition for learning.
This may be a bit non-PC but what made Europe a dominant force in culture, commerce and science, was the critical thinking that developed in Ancient Greece. This continued, with a long Dark Ages interlude, when religion all but extinguished this mode of thought, to the development of the scientific method and the idea that all knowledge should be seen as subject to scrutiny, tested, and even then still open to future challenge. Quine applied this to all knowledge. It has held us in good stead.
Learning through failure
Learning is cognitive improvement. It is all about moving on from one mental state to another that improves performance. These small steps forward are, in fact, built on many of small failures. You learn to drive a car by adjusting thousands of small acts of over-steering, going too fast, too slow, taking the wrong line on the road, braking too hard…. You learn by building on many, many small acts of failure. Learning to write means making lots of spelling, punctuation and stylistic errors, eventually getting there over many years. The feedback loop try-fail-learn-repeat lies at the heart of the learning process. Unfortunately there is often a fear of failure in education and training, sometimes even a blame culture around failure. As an antidote to this, here are five levels of failure that one can use when learning or designing learning experiences.
Level 1. Failure recognition
We have all experienced those small, sometimes big, sometimes catastrophic experiences of failure, even humiliation. The teacher that told you that you’d never amount to anything, the exam failure and so on. Actual failure is compounded by the fact that the learning game is soaked in the language of innate ability not development and learning. From ‘Gifted’ children to ‘Talent management’, professionals use the bizarre language of fixed ability, often without realising the consequences.
The first step on the failure curve, therefore, is to recognise and encourage what Dweck calls a growth mindset. This does NOT mean endless praise, which can seem inauthentic and get counterproductive. It does mean encouraging learners to strive for improvement and, importantly, not let failure be the road-block it so often is at school or in other areas of human endeavour. The simple recognition that failure is normal, happens to everyone, and, when seen as the natural step towards improvement, can be turned from a negative to a positive, is a mainstay of good teaching and learning.
Level 2. Tons of tiny steps
Mathew Syed’s book Black Box Thinking draws on many examples of successful learning through failure. One stands out. When David Brailsford announced in 2009, that Team Sky would win the Tour de France ‘within five years’ no one took him seriously. Within three years Bradley Wiggins became the first Brit to win the race. Sure, he had a goal but that is never enough. A focus on ‘leadership’ and ‘goals’ is never enough. It is all about what Brailsford calls ‘marginal gains’, tons of tiny steps, all adding up to bigger success.
In any learning domain this is all about breaking things down into their constituent parts, mastering identifiable competences, and getting them right. So much education and training remains aloof in high levels of abstraction, hazy platitudes and generalities. What is often needed is attention to detail. This is now commonplace in sports’ training but not so common in education and L&D. It should be. In teacher training, for example, far more attention should be paid to specific things one can do to improve your performance as a teacher, through mentors or video captured performance and feedback. If it’s about actual practice, lectures on learning theory are not enough, deliberate practice and improvement really do matter.
Level 3. Deliberate practice
Anders Ericsson studied the role of practice in sport, music, medicine and other domains, where learners move from being novices to experts. He identified several characteristics that distinguish ‘deliberate’ from simple ‘repeated’ practice. First, concentrate, as there is no real learning without attention. Second, break down the task or skill into its constituent parts, so that one you build positively on failure at this micro level, rather than get discouraged by massive failure at the macro level. Third, focus on feedback from failure, either by yourself or by a coach or teacher, as conquering many small failures is the engine at the heart of learning. Fourth, increase the challenge to accelerate the rate of progress. Push yourself beyond your comfort zone, accept the fact that you will fail but embrace this as the price you pay for progress. This is called deliberate practice and upward trajectory based on overcoming failure.
Level 4. Catastrophic failure
Let’s up the stakes once more. Safe failure in dangerous or lethal tasks is the most obvious examples of failure as a means to a good end. Pilots can crash and burn on flight simulators. Doctors can train on surgery and other simulators without harming or killing patients. Emergency service personnel can deal with fire and other incidents without anyone getting hurt or dying. Why do all pilots do simulator training? They go down with the plane. Maybe we should see most, if not all competences, in that light. We should be allowed to push ourselves and accept that safe, catastrophic failure is a force for good.
Simulations, boosted by cheap, consumer price AR and VR will happen over the next decade or two. This will bring realistic, contextualised, learn by doing, attentive learning, that allows as much failure as is necessary for effective and speedy learning, way beyond most classroom training. This is a fantastic opportunity to push learning away from its current theoretical bias towards more realistic practice and success – real performance.
Level 5. Reboot
Let’s push this to one more level. An even stronger form of failure is Reboot failure, where you identify failure, stop and send the learner back to the start of a level or learning experience. This is the secret sauce in successful gaming. You shoot away, get killed, get sent back to the start of the level and try again. Why is this such a successful and addictive feature of gameplay? It’s all to do with accelerating learning. You, in effect, learn how to learn. Being subjected to failure checks your progress (constant assessment), sends you back (repetition) and motivates you to try again with greater effort or knowledge (learning). It’s a virtuous cycle.
This is the one feature of gamification that I like – Reboot failure. Forget all of that Pavlovian froth – collecting emeralds, silver coins and running around pac-man mazes, and focus on risk-reward failure within levels. Allow the learners to try things and fail. But when they fail, the equivalent of being killed in a shoot ‘em up’ game, send them back to the start of the level to start again. Don’t be scared to punish failure as it not only delivers repeated practice but the learner comes back eager to overcome that failure.
There is even a games’ genre that takes this Reboot failure to another level – survival games. In No Man’s Sky, procedurally generated, never-ending, you explore a vast universe of planets but if you die, you get reset back to the start of the game. Get the right balance between challenge, failure and success and you have a multi-million dollar game or a brilliant learning experience.
The most spectacular successes in human progress have been grounded in the recognition of failure. From the critical thinking of the Greeks – pre-Socratics, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and others – through to the scientific revolution, where we see the world as something to be subjected to challenge, testing and falsification. Potential failure or falsification has led to astounding advances in art, medicine, engineering and technology.
The airline industry is an admirable example of the relentless pursuit of safety and quality through learning from failure. It’s in their DNA. If only that attitude and process could be applied to education and training. Yet the opposite seems to true. We wallow in the world of gifted programmes, summative assessment for selection, lectures, essays, talent management…. The world of learning is a failure factory, not in the positive sense of learning from failure, second chances and progress but one of selection, road blocks, disappointment, discouragement and real failure. As professionals, we seem to have lost our critical faculties, stuck in a time warp of old theory and models that were never verified in the first place; lectures, hands-up anyone, Maslow, Myers-Briggs, Learning Styles, Piaget, NLP, Kirkpatrick. This is not good enough. It introduces certainty where there is nothing but ideological belief and unverified theory and practice. We need to think critically and see failure as part of what it is to learn.
Thiel P. (2015) Zero to one. Virgin Books
Syed M. (2016) Black Box Thinking
Ericsson, K. Anders, Krampe, Ralf Th. and Tesch-Romer. Clemens (1993) The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance. Psychological Review, Vol. 100. No. 3, 363-406
Ericsson K.; Prietula, Michael J.; Cokely, Edward T. (2007). "The Making of an Expert". Harvard Business Review (July–August 2007).
Ericsson, Anders K.; Roring, Roy W.; Nandagopal, Kiruthiga (2007). "Giftedness and evidence for reproducibly superior performance". High Ability Studies.