Challenges and Failure are Great Tools for Learning

For the last few months I’ve been a self confessed fan and avid user of iPhone OS. Yesterday, as an impulse buy, I picked up a Droid. Months of conditioning to Apple’s interface left me confused when I first saw the HTC Sense skinned Android interface. That was at noon yesterday. A little over a day and I’m happily doing all of my mobile computing tasks using my Android. It doesn’t surprise you that I didn’t need any training, does it? But here are some questions for you.

Did the inventor of the wheel have training? Did Alexander Selkirk who was castaway on an island and survived for four years before rescue have any training? If you embark on a project out of your comfort zone, will you really need up-front training on the domain? The answer to all of these questions is perhaps a “No”. For the last few years, I’ve been thinking that not just the elearning that we create, but also the way we choose to educate in classrooms and corporate boardrooms is ineffective and outdated, given the information explosion we have today. What’s the purpose of any education? To prepare us for real life, don’t you think? If that’s something we agree with, then education should no longer be about disseminating information. Education should be about simulating real life challenges – the information should be incidental to solving the problem. Work, on the other hand needs to build in the safety for failure. In today’s blogpost, I want to share a few thoughts about the place for challenges in today’s education and work environments.

Information is already out there
As I struggled with my new phone, I decided some information could be handy. Not surprisingly, all the information I needed was available when I needed it. A quick tour of the HTC Sense interface came with the setup application on the phone. Information about really useful Android apps came to me through a Google search. Even when I was planning to buy the phone, I got all the information I needed by searching through reviews on the internet. Now this may all seem simple because I’m just talking of a phone switch. I do think however, that you’ll agree with me when I say that information of most kinds is already available to us – regardless of the subject. We no longer face an information famine – it’s all there at the click of a mouse. Why then, do our models of education and training retain the legacy of the 80’s when information was scarce and available with only a few experts? Now that most of the information is already out there, I believe we need our experts and ‘trainers’ to be more than just information bearers.

Failure is a great teacher

“The main point is that, if we continue to look at education as if it’s about coming to school to get the information and not about experiential learning, empowering student voice and embracing failure, we’re missing the mark… Because learning has to include an amount of failure, because failure is instructional in the process.” – Diana Laufenberg

You should definitely watch this talk by Diana Laufenberg where she talks about her experience of teaching children in different schools and how she has found mistakes to be an integral part of learning. AtThoughtWorks we believe in a culture of ‘failing fast and learning from our mistakes’. That’s because learning is an iterative process and not an dimension free event. I remember that I’ve learned most of the skills I practice today through years of applying them and having failed several times. Failure has taught me the ways that don’t work and as a consequence I’ve learned the ways that work for me. Learning is effective when it’s painful, but most learning experiences tend to try and lay a red carpet for the learner. We do our best to tell them ‘the right way to do things’ and coach them through the ‘one right answer’. What happened to good, old fashioned exploration? Now I know that an ‘instructionally sound’ approach of leading the learner down ‘the right path’ seems very elegant, but this is what I call ‘false elegance’. It seems like very intelligent design in comparision to the trial and error approach of learning, but we all know at the bottom of our hearts that the messy, failure ridden road is the one that builds true skill. Why then, do educational programs not encourage failure? Why don’t companies build in the safety to fail, so people can keep learning from their mistakes? After all if people keep learning, the organisation tends to keep growing.

Information creates Knowledge, but Challenges create experience

The downside to pushing your content to the learners is that it assumes that all of the information is equally relevant to the learners and meets their learning needs. – Tom Kuhlmann

I’m a big believer in the power of pull to create learning. As human beings, we’re an extremely adaptive race. Given a challenge, we’ll usually gather the know-how to solve the problem. Challenges need to be at the center of modern learning experiences. Be it training, or elearning, when there are challenges that are as close to the real world as possible, we help learners build the confidence and experience to respond to similar challenges at the workplace. For example at ThoughtWorks University, graduates have the challenge of building a real world application for a real world client. The challenge has everything you’ll see in real life, delivery pressures, technical complexity, teamwork, consulting, etc. By the end of the experience, we’re not just helping the grads to learn the skills they’ll need at their job – we’re helping them to learn how to learn.

Setting challenges is just a better use of people as well. We don’t need to hire expert trainers in hordes if only we can build in safety to fail at the workplace. Intelligent workscape design can help in a big way. In instructional situations, designers can work with SMEs to create authentic challenges. SMEs on the other hand can serve as coaches (or virtual coaches) to guide people through the struggle. In face to face situations, this is a way to foster leadership – after all a lot of leadership skills are the same as the ones we need to become good coaches.

As we head into the next generation of learning technology, I wonder if our focus needs to be around designing experiences over designing information dumps. I’m a big believer in the fact that learning is a process, and not an event – how can we put our learners on a diet of information and let real world challenges determine if they even need all that information in the first place? What do you think? Is pull overrated, or can we do significantly better as instructional designers? I welcome your comments!

By Sumeet Moghe

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