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Being a Teacher: Accelerating Failure

The best teachers are the ones who make their students fail quickly and often. And there’s a lot of cognitive science to back up that approach!

At its deepest, most fundamental level, learning is a survival mechanism. Puppies learn when they’re fed each day, and their bodies adapt—studies have shown that, much like humans, their stomachs start to kick into gear around their usual meal times. Kittens learn the fine art of being tremendously evil, that being the primary element that keeps their species alive.

“That which does not kill us, makes us stronger” is a pithy saying, but it has strong roots in cognitive science. Failure is usually unpleasant: at the least, it’s embarrassing, and at the worst, it’s physically damaging and painful. Failure creates exceptionally strong synaptic networks in our brains, and once we learn how to avoid failure, the means of avoidance becomes strongly linked to the feeling of failure. Our brains learn that when this happens, we should do this to avoid it.

The fact that relatively few people have been in jail for any significant period of time is the only reason those people feel entitled to get uppity with the flight crews on airplanes: they haven’t experienced meaningful failure, and so their brains haven’t learned to behave in a way that will avoid that failure.

The best teachers will arrange for safe failures. That is, they’ll give their students the opportunity to fail, and even guide them to that failure. They’ll arrange things so that the failure is meaningful and impactful, but not deadly.

Airline pilots experience failure in simulators—embarrassing, but not deadly. And their instructors make sure that failures are embarrassing, otherwise the experience would lack the requisite impact to make a strong neural impression.

George Fausel let a 16 year-old me run 220 volts through a woefully undersized resistor, fully aware that the component would catch fire—spectacularly. He was right behind me with a fire extinguisher, and he’d made sure I was wearing my safety goggles. Let me tell you, the difference between volts and amps was driven strongly home that afternoon.

Parents try to coach their kids not to touch the hot pot on the stove—but they’re wrong in doing so. What they should do is arrange for a hot, but not damagingly hot, pot to remain on the stove. Touching it will hurt, but it won’t be deadly. Their kid will experience failure, and will learn from it—far better than they would learn from their parents’ admonitions.

Programmers learn about source control—truly learn about it—after they’ve lost a huge chunk of code. People learn about password-management apps after they’ve been permanently locked out of their GMail account. Failure is our best teacher.

Too many teachers think their job is to help students avoid failure. They’ll lecture on what not to do, without realizing that their students’ brains simply don’t work that way, and can’t be made to work that way. We can hear about failure all the time, but until we experience it, we won’t truly learn. We all hear about how airlines lose baggage, but until they’ve lost yours, you’re a lot less likely to mitigate the problem by carrying on a set of clothes and toiletries just in case.

In the world of tech, we have ample means of providing failure experiences. Virtual environments, dedicated lab machines, and so on all let us fail “non-catastrophically.” We need to use these means more often, both for ourselves and for the people we’re offering knowledge to. Any time you warn someone not to do something, you should instead be thinking how to create an experience where they can fail for themselves, and truly experience the outcome. Your job as a teacher is not to prevent failure, but to guide students to and through that failure.

So how will that change how you offer information to people in the future?

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