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Being a Teacher: Make Room for Failure

We all hate to see our friends fail. When someone’s put their trust in us, we especially hate to see them fail—it feels like we’ve let them down. And yet often times, the best way we can help someone is to let them fail.

The problem comes when failing can be dangerous or even catastrophic, right? “Sorry I let you crash the plane, Bob, but it’s for your own good. You know, if you weren’t dead.”

In fact, that’s a good example: piloting an airliner. Failing over and over and over is one of the best ways to learn how to really fly, but you can’t exactly send someone up in a 737 and “just try things out.” So what does the industry do instead? Flight simulators. They’re a way to safely fail, over and over, and to gain all the valuable experience that comes along with failure. In other words, the industry’s teaching arm has created room for failure.

You can do it too.

One of my favorite examples of learn-by-failing is when folks tell their young children, “don’t touch the hot pot on the stove!” Most kids do it anyway: the warning alone simply doesn’t create the necessary synaptic networks in a kid’s brain to make the lesson “stick.” Touching the hot pot, on the other hand, definitely creates a vivid, multi-sensory experience that isn’t easily forgotten. So how could you “make room” for that kind of failure? Deliberately put a hot pot on the stove—one whose temperature is carefully set to not be dangerously hot, but still hot enough to make the point.

In other words, good teachers anticipate failure, and create a safe place for that to happen.

In the tech industry for example, we might set up a lab environment in a bunch of virtual machines. Failures create no lasting damage to anything “real,” and the VMs can be reset over and over again—like a flight simulator–to give people another try.

Preparing for an important presentation? A “practice run” with friends and colleagues is a good way to simulate the real experience, make your mistakes, and get yourself ready for the real thing.

Anticipate failure. Provide a safe way for the lesson to be learned. Make room for failure. This is one of the hallmarks of a good teacher, and you can do it every day, in every moment, as you’re sharing information with your friends, colleagues, and coworkers.

What you want to avoid is simply issuing warnings, like “don’t touch the hot pot on the stove.” People don’t learn from those. People learn by doing. They learn by failing. We can’t prevent our students from failing—and we shouldn’t even want to! What we can do is provide a way for them to fail that doesn’t create harm, a way for them to learn safely.

Give it a thought. What have you done, or what could you do, to create a room-for-failure learning environment for your coworkers… your kids… your friends… or anyone else?

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