WHEN FAILING IS SAFE, MISTAKES ARE PRECIOUS AND LEARNING IS FUN.
The last Fresh From The Lab post left with the beautiful image of a child trying, trying and trying again. Not only not giving up but actually enjoying the process of trying. Failure was nowhere to be seen in the picture. It’s easy to notice and appreciate this attitude in children.
It’s more difficult to protect it.
Let alone to learn from that.
By the time our kids go to primary school, we are probably faced with that “mistake phobia” that transforms education in a miserable journey for so many children. Teachers explain to you with complicated words that every time the child makes a mistake, that gets ingrained in his brain. The obvious consequence is pointed out to you that the child should make no mistake when producing a piece of work. (yes: It still happens!).
Put like that, it might seem extreme, but how often do we give up before we start? How often does it happen to us to anticipate a dreaded failure and to just let it be. We just walk the other way, maybe a little sadder, maybe a little sleepier.
And it is no wonder, as it is quite likely that we were raised in an environment where a mistake is something we should never commit and – in case we did – something that would be punished by the authority figures around us.
It has been decades that science has shown us just the opposite: we desperately need our mistakes if we want to learn things for the long term, if we want to have an intimate knowledge of one matter we need to know what can go wrong, how it feels, how we fix it. This applies to all stages if life: from rolling over to your tummy as a baby to managing a big company as an adult. If you are paralysed into not making mistakes you can at best reproduce what someone else has figured out. There is no way you can learn something new.
On top of that, mistakes are intrinsically unpleasant: they give you that sense of disappointment without any need of someone else telling you form the outside. Children and adult alike take pleasure in doing things well. If they don’t manage, the disappointment of that failure will be the fuel for the next trial. It’s a pretty well-built system.
If judgement and frustration come in from the outside though, the risk to go into defensiveness is huge (we cover these and more topics in our BabyBrains Workshops). I don’t know about you, but I am perfectly happy to see the flaws in my work and work at them until I am satisfied. It’s hard work though to resist the temptation to give a million excuses and explanations when I get a constructive critique. When I get a destructive one… forget it. Only just the thought of working again at that thing fills me with dread.
So why? Why is school still working mainly on the basis of mistakes avoidance and mistake punishment? Why are we transforming learning from the amazing fun it naturally is into a heavy chore? The alternatives exists, they are many and they are pleasant. Rachel Wu has written to us about it here.
Time to freshen up after years of industrial learning and to venture in the wonderful land of making mistakes.