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Failing to Learn

That’s a confusing title, isn’t it? Failing to Learn. It’s a phrase that could be interpreted in a number of ways. Which is precisely why I like it. It makes us think.

Easily, one could read this title and conclude that the learner just wasn’t successful. That in spite of numerous opportunities provided to him or her, they just didn’t “get it.” We might even concede that the instruction the learner experienced was robust and of high quality. Still, they didn’t learn it (whatever “it” is). They missed the boat. They failed.

There is tremendous stigma attached to this interpretation, and the experience of the learner who “fails” to learn. It stings. The resulting label, and that resonating mark of “F” in the learning log, is something to be avoided at all cost in our traditional educational settings. And, if the act of “failing” is seen as some sort of pattern, the verb becomes a noun, “failure.” This can have a devastating effect on the confidence and self-esteem of the learner.

Anyone who knows me, or has observed the philosophical underpinnings of my career, will understand that I embrace a different interpretation of the phrase failing to learn. I contend that failing is a function of learning. In fact, I would go so far as to say that learning, the type that is meaningful and significant, can only occur if there has been some failing along the way. Think about it. How many times did you fall off of your bike before you could finally ride? How many times did the bat not connect with the ball until you experienced your first hit? You failed, perhaps repeatedly, before you succeeded. Each one of those failed attempts were instrumental is shaping your learning. And, isn’t it interesting that there was no ridicule associated with your experience? No, you were met with encouragement: “You can do it! Keep going! Try again!” Sadly, we reserve the shame of failing for the schoolhouse. The very place where repeated attempts and risk taking should be encouraged and celebrated is the place where lasting damage for simply “coming up short” is leveled.

I devote a chapter of my book, The Education Kids Deserve, to this topic, titled ”Banning the ‘F’ Word.” In a nutshell, I argue that perpetuating school cultures that are failure avoidant reduces students’ inclinations to try new and challenging things, to engage in creative problem solving or to assume any level of risk. In other words, such a culture is in direct opposition to learning anything beyond rote memorization of facts.

Newsweek published an article last week that supports my position. In it, the author reminds us that if a task is too easy it can be accomplished with a minimal investment of cranial capital. Conversely, if a task is too difficult or complicated, there is a tendency to back away from it to avoid, well, failure. (You really can’t fail if you don’t try.) Preliminary conclusions of a recent study suggest there is a sweet spot that optimizes this dichotomy. It’s called the Eighty-five Percent Rule. The researchers conclude that failing fifteen percent of the time and succeeding the remainder is the optimum way to gain new skills and information. While they concede that 85/15 may not be the magic formula, they stress that the pursuit of perfection isn’t great for learning. We need to make some mistakes in order to learn.

What? For optimal results, students should be encouraged to experience failure? What does this suggest about instructional practices or curriculum design? Isn’t this in conflict with our standard grading policies and how we weigh “failure” in our calculations? Think about it. A 15% failure rate results in 85/100 being the highest percentage possible. Applied to our traditional grading system, a grade of “B” would be the desired target. Anything higher would suggest the student didn’t fail enough.

This kind of disrupts our current practices, doesn’t it? As it should. This is yet another example of the need to reinvent our system of public education. Again, quoting Tony Wagner from his 2008 book, The Global Achievement Gap, “the problem goes . . . to the very way we conceive of the purpose and experience of schooling and what we expect our high school graduates to know and be able to do.”

Food for thought, And, thought for action.

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