How many people have a memory seared into their brains of one particular mistake made in school or on the job that was simply so mortifying that they never, ever, ever made that same mistake again? In other words, they learned the hard way but they really learned that lesson. For life.
I was listening to an interview last week with Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code, in which she was discussing her inspiration for starting the non-profit organization. In short, she was galvanized by the disparity she saw between the way girls and boys were taught to approach risk and potential failure throughout childhood and adolescence. She saw girls being encouraged to strive for perfection, therefore making them less likely to seek out new challenges or activities at which they might fail. She felt that coding, an endeavor that could easily be described as a never-ending series of tweaks, mini-failures, and fixes, was not only a valuable way to “re-train” this failure avoidance in young girls, but also an important step in closing the gender gap in the technology field.
This got me thinking about mistake-driven learning and the importance of having the freedom to safely fail in education. In his recent article, 7 Benefits of Mistake-driven Learning, Christopher Pappas advocates for its advantages in reinforcing critical thinking and problem-solving skills, higher-level learning capacity, and the key role that trial & error + solution reformulation plays in boosting knowledge retention and comprehension. He makes the case that creating an eLearning environment where students are safe to explore consequences to their actions, and then revise their approach based on individual outcomes, is crucial to preparing them for success in the real world.
In another write-up, the same author talks even more specifically about the benefits of applying Repair Theory, which explains the fundamental role of mistakes in procedure-based learning, to the eLearning design process. By implementing realistic simulations, branching scenarios, and real-time, personalized feedback for eLearners, it is possible to create a learning environment in which students are not only safe to fail and learn from their mistakes, but one that also provides contextual layers upon which the learner is able to apply new their knowledge.
One of my recent projects involved the development of online scenario-based case studies for students in health sciences programs. Talk about a field in which rote memorization of processes and procedures will just not cut it! For students in these programs, a thorough understanding built upon a scaffolding of contextual knowledge and interconnected concepts is critical. And so the instructional design of these online cases must create an ecosystem in which the students can immerse themselves in scenarios, use critical thinking skills to make interlinked decisions, and learn from their own mistakes in a safe online environment.
The idea that we learn most effectively from real experience and from our mistakes is applicable in education and in business because it is so deeply rooted in human behavior. No one wants to make mistakes and we all (at some point) shy away from the possibility of failure. But how much better would we be if we could let go of that limiting fear, allow ourselves to be brave enough to try new things and test uncharted waters, in order to then fail fast and become better?
Never Stop Learning.