There’s no such thing as bad learning

My first bike was red. It wasn’t new, my brother had ridden it first, bequeathing it to me with a fair dusting of scratches and nicks, the saddle, i recall, being somewhat scuffed. It had cream tyres, which were cool, and it was all mine. I couldn’t tell you exactly how old i was: old enough to be able to ride, young enough not to know better. I can, in fact, remember clearly the first time i actually ‘rode’ the bike, teetering down the front path towards the road, the first time i kept my balance, etched in my memory, the time i learnt to ride. But this story is less about riding, more about falling off.

In my memory, the pile of dirt and stones was large, somewhere approaching the size of a respectably mid sized hill, although i suspect in reality is was the size of a skip. Many memories from childhood include vastly oversized giants in funfairs and towering uncles, who turn out to be progressively smaller as our imagination shrinks and our legs lengthen.

Somewhere between learning to ride and encountering the hill (more of a mountain really), i convinced myself that i could complete an ascent. There was surely a path visible up the side? Nothing in my experience had taught me that this couldn’t be achieved, so, with ignorance and enthusiasm on my side, shorts flapping as my legs gained speed, i launched myself at the side of the cliff face.

The exact details of what happened next are somewhat less clear in memory. I remember that the sun was out, and i can remember looking at my hand palm turned upwards, filling with blood. It was that peculiarly vivid red that, as a child was fascinating but as an adult makes me queasy. I remember it running along the creases in my palm and falling to the ground, and, somewhere, i recall cycling home, although any details of cleaning the cut or plastering have faded. All i have to show for it now is my best scar in the palm of my hand and an handful of memories. And maybe i learnt something.

Looking at it now, the scar is small, it’s relative size shrinking as i grew, but it was one of those formative memories that leave an impression beyond their mere size or duration. Learning requires feedback: from the moment we are born, our senses provide information about the environment. We get too hot, too cold, we react accordingly. Babies taste and chew things, not just out of idle naughtiness, but to gather information, for comfort, to taste and test them. This process of sampling the world gives them their first worldview, their initial understanding of how things work and their place in it. We learn what hurts us and what comforts us, what we like and what to avoid.

This learning continues as we grow, although the processes of testing, tasting and reacting to feedback become more formalised, applying not just to physical stimuli, but to ideas as well, for just as we don’t want to eat everything we touch, so we don’t want to believe everything we hear. We apply judgements and rational decision making to the new information that we encounter.

Learning is an activity that changes us, we do not remain static, but rather evolve over time. After learning, we are different people to those that we were before. When we encounter something new, we size it up against that which we already know to be true: we decide to what extent we agree with or dispute the new information, and then react accordingly, but the schemas that we use to measure new knowledge against are not fixed. They are changed by our learning, the person that we are changes as our worldview adapts and moulds to current circumstances.

But what about bad learning? Is all learning good? Do we grow in every instance? Well, without wanting to sound naive or overly idealistic, i believe that we do. We learn from the things that we like and enjoy but equally we learn from the negatives, from the things that we fail at or fail to enjoy. We learn from the pleasure as well as the pain. Not all learning is of things that we appreciate or enjoy, sometimes we are learning not to do it again or how to do it better and avoid falling off. It’s like a racing driver trying out a circuit. You could learn to drive it by progressively pushing yourself slightly further each time, starting to feel when the traction is slipping or there is a slight margin of error left, but you may not truly learn how far you can push it until you go too far.

It’s possible that you have to fail in order to learn. Or at least, maybe you have to fail if you ever want to fully achieve your potential?

In the real world though, we are intolerant of failure. Or rather, we don’t often view failure as part of learning. In our performance driven culture, with a meritocratic methodology for schooling and assessment, we don’t view failure as part of or even aligned with success. You either pass or you fail. You don’t fail as part of passing. There is an eerie dichotomy here, that we generally accept that you have to make mistakes to learn, but that we generally penalise people for making mistakes. How is this supposed to work?

I believe that one of the most powerful ways to encourage and support learning is to create space to make mistakes. We have to have space to ride our bikes, but we have to expect to fall off now and then.

In practical terms, space to make mistakes is not about assessment, it’s about spaces to explore, to places where we can rehearse behaviours and manipulate information. Often this may take the form of simulations or scenarios, but crucially these have to give you the space to play, the space to explore and trip over the scenery. The very best form of scenarios are ones that allow you to manipulate information, to make decisions and to explain your reasoning behind those decisions. This is where the learning comes in: the explanation of reasoning and the contextual feedback based upon those explanations.

Feedback is crucial, as you are tottering down the garden path, swerving left and right, legs peddling like the clappers, it helps if someone is shouting encouragement, giving you some feedback and tips. It helps if they support you in identifying what you are doing right and what you are doing wrong. But the feedback needs to be contextual and informative. One of my media friends uses the stock term “do it again and do it right” when he is directing a film. Very fun, but of limited practical use (he does usually follow it up with more specific feedback…). The question is ‘how do we do it right’, and that’s what we are allowing people to explore when we create the space for failure.

But is this true of all experience, of all learning? Depression is one thing that many people experience in their lives, it’s often viewed as an unrelentingly negative experience, but is there anything that we learn or take away from it that is positive? Is all the learning bad, or is there any good there?

I’ve written about this before, but i believe that even from depression we learn: we learn about empathy, about understanding. Whilst some people struggle to escape from the clutches of it, others manage to rebuild their lives and maybe demonstrate greater understanding as a result. It’s not just external stimuli that we learn from, by falling off out bikes, but rather also introspection.

Somewhere between 30-50% of people will display clinical signs of depression at some point in their lives but if it’s a wholly negative experience, detrimental to our experience, then there is a question of why it not selected against in evolution (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=depressions-evolutionary&page=2).

Depression is an acutely introspective activity, leading individuals to become inward facing, shunning external contact and concentrating on problems with intense detail.

I think it’s possible that depression, more than anything, promotes empathy and understanding. It’s a route to learning more about ourselves and, ultimately, other people. It’s not an easy journey, but it’s one that many people take, and there is a wider understanding that can emerge from it.

Many things we learn from trial and error. Not just riding our bikes, but how to behave on a first date, how to cook, how to paint. But the lessons we learn about empathy and understanding come from within, through introspection and reflection.

It’s not knowledge that will make you a better driver or mathematician, but it might make you more likely to reach out to people, to build on commonality and the positive, rather than division and the negative. Not always, i realise. For some people, depression is a prison that they struggle to ever escape from, but in some cases, it can be different.

So much of what we learn, of what is ‘normal’, leads us to fear abnormality; to fear disability, to fear lack of control, to fear ignorance, whilst in fact, we can learn from all of these things. Not in a formal way, but in terms of our inner understanding and building empathy.

So we can learn things from the good as well as the bad, but whichever path we are on, there is no such thing as bad learning: just learning that some things are bad.

The thing to take away? That we need to create the space for learning to take place, that we have to create the space for failure, the space to ride our bike and try to climb the highest mountains. If we fear pain and failure, we will limit ourselves to those experiences or thoughts that are safe, and in doing so we will limit our potential or the potential of others. There is always risk in learning, in living, but when we are designing spaces to learn in, we need to keep some of this space in place. We can’t reduce the experience to the point where failure or success is a simply digital state of passing or failing. We need to recognise that failure is part of the road to success.

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About Julian Stodd

A learning and development professional specialising in e-learning and learning technology.
This entry was posted in Adventure, Challenge, Depression, Empathy, Failure, Learning, Mistakes and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to There’s no such thing as bad learning

  1. Hello from Washington State Julian. I’ve just subscribed to your blog and I have to tell you, I thoroughly enjoy your writing. We often chastise people (children) for failing instead of looking for the opportunity to utilize the lessons learned from failing to further the overall learning experience. It’s not a matter of celebrating failure but rather allowing room for failure as part of the process. However, you are much more eloquent in explaining it and as I stated, I really enjoyed reading it. Thanks. -Laura B.

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