Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Failing Fast and Hard

These days, I feel like every conversation I have relates in some way to e-learning. :)

Was discussing work stuff with a cousin-- actually, he's my children's cousin, a bit older than they.. He works in "advertising," but it's actually web design and branding for (very big) companies. He said that his agency starts every project with the expectation that the team will "fail fast", get started on the site design and concept and learn quite quickly if they're headed in the wrong direction or screwed up something technical.

The "early failure" allows them to revise before they have too big an investment in the old design. He said that the teammates have to therefore have the ability to notice failure, accept it, and learn from it, all very quickly. This kind of resilience requires a surrender of ego and ownership, and I can see from my own experience at one job that this is quite difficult for many people. I once worked with a man who had a lot of talent, but regarded "failure" as a personal disaster, so that if someone would say, "There's a typo in line 4," he would would fire back an angry email about how he actually MEANT to have that typo or whatever it was. Really-- he couldn't accept even the minorest failure, and so it meant he never revised or corrected his work. Eventually he ended up at a standstill, too afraid to create anything new.

 I wonder if the "zero-tolerance" approach many young people are faced with now (in education and in life) doesn't kind of create that same resistance. Students are told they have one chance. "You can't get into nursing school if you get a single B freshman year," one of my students just told me. In other words, you can't become a nurse (and we need nurses!) if you get less than perfect in some unrelated class? What sense does that make?

In so many areas now, perfection is expected. In one college where I teach, we're supposed to enforce the strictest of deadlines (cough... I don't), so that if a student is late with a single assignment, she fails the class.  And of course, fail one class, and you might as well  hang it up, all your aspirations. (I do have to point out that, as always, them that has don't have this issue-- when I taught at a selective private college, students were always given second and third chances.)

What does this teach them but -- failure is permanent and disastrous? And the need to be perfect from the get-go paradoxically means there's no way to achieve success if you're less than perfect. Yes, a few students will achieve this way, but we really can't build a society of educated people on the 10% who can get it right right away, who don't actually need to learn by trying, who come to college fully prepared. We need the 90%, and within that 90% won't just be the student who needs more time or help, but the daydreamers and artists and inventors who need to keep coming at a work from different angles, taking something from each "failure" to build something new. Those learners are not going to get it right right away, because "getting it right" doesn't create anything new, and "getting it wrong" might.


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