Time to Fail
Providing space and time for trial and error is essential to learning

Failure is a necessary part of learning, the “error” after the “trial” that lets you know where you are coming up short and how to improve. Teachers and schools everywhere say they want to produce kids who have the perseverance to see failure as a learning opportunity. But there is one problem. Learning through failure requires time. And time is one thing that schools, with their standardized curricula, cannot usually afford.

In his book How Children Learn, John Holt provides a good illustration by describing a game he and a toddler named Lisa played on a car ride. He would clap his hands in a certain motion, and she would try to imitate how he clapped his hands:

Watching her do this, I was struck by two things. First, she did not feel that she had to get everything right before she started to do anything. She was willing—no, more than willing, eager—to begin by doing something, and then think about fixing it up. Secondly, she was not satisfied with incorrect imitations, but kept on looking and comparing until she was satisfied that she was correct—which she almost always was”

Two things are worth noting. First, Lisa had no apparent fear of failure (because there was no penalty to failure). Second, she had time to keep trying until she was satisfied. Both of these – the freedom to fail without penalty, and the freedom to take the time one needs – are key to the learning process, but are often missing in school environments. As soon as one puts learning on a standardized time schedule (“Lisa, you have only five minutes to get this clapping pattern or we move on and you ‘fall behind,'”), you preclude the learner from being able to take their time, and this means that failure now comes at a cost.

When we learn, it generally looks like this: trial, error, reflection on what went wrong, acquire more knowledge, try again, fail differently, more reflection, repeat (or, something like that). The exact process is unique to each individual. What one learner gets in one or two passes may take another several more tries. Some learners don’t require much reflection after a failure; they just keep trying new strategies until something works. Others are more deliberate, requiring a lot of time to reflect and regroup after each failure to get it right.

Trial and error at school science project
photo by Knight Foundation

It’s a process that is difficult or impossible to standardize. And that difficulty puts it at odds with how schools work. Schools tell us what we are going to learn and how long we have to learn it. Each student has roughly the same amount of time. While I’m sure schoolteachers want their students to grow comfortable with failure, each failure becomes an obstacle against the curriculum calendar. At best, the message is mixed: failure is a learning opportunity, but just don’t fail too much; the final test is Friday!

Another way that schools (inadvertently) discourage failure is in how they assign grades, often attaching penalty to failure. Quizzes, tests, and assignments are frequently graded based on what you got right and wrong, and the grade stays with you, affecting your “final grade.” If you want a high grade, as schools always encourage, the best way to do that is to avoid even the most productive failure.

In The Up Side of Down, a book about the importance of failure in all areas of life, Megan McArdle writes that for failure to be productive, it surely has to sting a bit (which is how we recognize that it’s failure), but also has to be low enough in cost that we can recover. As long as the goal of school is to get good grades, and grades are linked to how well you avoid failure, failure is something that stands between the learner and good grades. School, as Mcardle writes, becomes “essentially a pass-fail test of whether you can please adults”.

I believe that schools’ tight time schedules and grading systems that discourage failure are linked. Since schools give students only a set amount of time to learn any particular thing, they need to discourage failure, because failure gets in the way of everyone moving along at the same pace. Grading performance becomes not only a way to monitor student progress, but attach a penalty to the sort of failure that prevents kids from moving at the same pace.

Not allowing sufficient time for failure in learning creates another odd consequence: it discourages mastery in favor of “good enough to move on.” If you are learning a new skill, you will approach it differently if you are free to take as much time as you need than you would if I held you to a rigid time schedule.

With as much time as needed, you are free to try and fail as much as you require to gain that skill. If I tell you instead that you have six total hours before I test you (and you need to get at least a 70%), you will practice in a different way. Since you don’t have much time, your goal will probably be to pass the test more than to master the skill, and you’ll view failure less as a learning opportunity than as an obstacle to the deadline.

Hand completing a multiple choice exam
photo by Alberto G.

As Sal Khan (of Khan Academy) notes in this TEDTalk on mastery learning, the “just get good enough to move on” condition is generally what we see in schools. Since schools give students a set amount of time to learn x before moving to y, mastery learning can’t really be the goal. It’s nice, of course, if students happen to master x in the time allotted, but 70% will be good enough to move on. Yet, 70% learned means 30% unlearned.

Self-directed learners generally have the luxury of time to learn things to their satisfaction, and under these conditions, failure surely doesn’t carry the same sting. Surely, failure always hurts a bit. No one likes to come up short of their own (let alone others’) expectations. But without the artificial penalties schools often put on failure, failure is an invitation to reflect on what went wrong and try again.

To illustrate, my toddler son was recently playing a game on my tablet, where he has to drag items (like cars and balloons) into a space that has their shape. When he started playing the game, he repeatedly failed because he was dragging with his entire hand rather than one finger. After several failed attempts, he cried and walked away. Knowing that he was watching, I kept playing, using an exaggerated motion so that he could see I was only using one finger to drag the items. After watching me for several minutes, he came back and tried again. After several attempts, he got it right.

The way my son handled this game – and the way Lisa seemed to handle the clapping game in the car – resembles the way self-directed learners tend to learn. Yes, failure hurts, and getting it wrong causes frustration. But because the frustration isn’t compounded by things like lower grades or being labeled as ‘falling behind,” the failure is an invitation to reevaluate and try again. And why not? One of the gifts of Self-Directed Education is that learners generally have the time to fail which seems to me the best way to learn.