Learning to fail

This last week I've been teaching a group of highschool students how to write more effectively. They are a smart bunch of kids from a highly selective school who can memorise facts and figures better than I can. Yet there is one thing they are absolutely terrible at.

They don't know how to fail.

At first glance, this may not seem like much of a problem. After all, if you don't know how to fail, it's probably because you don't fail very often. And that's a good thing, right?

Unfortunately not.

Learning requires feedback

Take a moment to think about the last thing you learnt. Maybe it was a new fact about the world like the distance between Brisbane and Copenhagen via Dubai is 10,430 miles.

Maybe it was an insight about yourself or someone else like drinking fancy wine on a plane is pointless because the cabin pressure interferes with our olfactory sense and palette.

Or maybe it was a new skill like typing on a laptop while balancing a glass of expensive yet tasteless champagne during heavy turbulence (yes I'm typing this on a plane right now).

What did that process of learning involve?

Whilst the knowledge or skill learnt might have been very different, in each case the learning process was very similar. First you would have become aware of some deficit in your knowledge - some difference between what you did know and what you realised you needed to know.

Then you would have taken some action to address that deficit. If it was learning new content then that might have involved some memorization technique. If it was a learning a new skill like surfing (or champagne balancing), then that would have involved a lot of practice (and getting wet).

In either case, you would have relied on extensive feedback to determine if you were on the 'learning track' or not.

This feedback, both positive and negative, is essential for learning because it helps us correct our knowledge deficit. Feedback is what helps us close the gap between what we currently know and what we need to know.

If you are trying to learn subject matter, then you can get feedback by quizzing yourself on that subject. You might choose to highlight text, write notes, or create flash cards.

If you are trying to learn a new skill, then you can get feedback from your own performance. You might ask a friend to watch, listen to your body, or just look if your computer is wet.

Without this feedback though, you have no way of knowing whether or not you are learning.

Actionable feedback requires failure

Feedback is essential for learning but not all feedback is equal. We can judge the quality of feedback by many different metrics. Some people might like a quiet word whispered in their ear or a gentle push in the right direction. Others prefer brutal honesty. But regardless of the style, if we want to learn then feedback must be actionable.

And the most actionable feedback is negative.

Now it's important here to clarify what I mean by negative as the term has connotations that are, well ... negative. Negative (in this sense) doesn't mean degrading or nasty. And it certainly doesn't mean "Look you fool, you've screwed up again!".

When I'm talking about negative feedback, what I mean is just information that you didn't succeed, or that your theory doesn't match reality. We can better understand this by contrasting it with positive feedback - any information that tells you that you are on the right track.

Most people prefer positive feedback. Of course they do because it's always nice to find out that you are getting it right. Everyone loves to be correct - not least because our brains give us a little dopamine hit whenever we realise we are!

But what we really need for learning is negative feedback - that heads up that we aren't getting it right, that we aren't on track. And the reason negative feedback is so essential is that it helps us avoid epistemic luck.

Lucky isn't always good

Epistemic luck is just a fancy term for knowing things without having a good reason for knowing them. Now that might sound pretty good - wouldn't it be great to accidentally know everything - but it isn't.

Imaging for a moment that you were born with a doctor's knowledge of medicine - that you just instinctively knew why your body did what it did, or what was causing some sickness or ill health just by looking at someone. It would be awesome, wouldn't it!

But then imagine you didn't know why you knew that. If you ever had second thoughts about a diagnosis, or someone ever asked you why you believed what you believed, then you wouldn't be able to answer.

How could you then learn further?

The simple answer is that you couldn't. If you don't know there is a deficit between what you think you know and what you need to know, then you can't learn. If you can't determine if it's your current knowledge that is incomplete, or that what other people are saying is wrong, then you can't address that deficit.

Positive feedback doesn't actually tell us as much as we think. If you get the right answer to a question, then you might have known it all along, or you might have just been lucky.

Only negative feedback can address the deficit because negative feedback is definitive. When you get the wrong answer, you know with certainty that you were wrong. When you predict something and reality says "sorry ... no", you know for sure that your working theory is incorrect.

Negative feedback might be disappointing and it might sometimes even be depressing, but it is the only feedback that gives us actionable information.

Sure, failure sucks. Knowing you are wrong isn't nearly as enjoyable as believing you are right.

But if we want to learn, then we need actionable feedback. And the most actionable feedback comes from failure.

So start embracing the negative feedback that comes from failure as essential lessons in whatever it is you are trying to learn.

Understand that no failure = no learning.

Stop worrying and learn to love the wrong.

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Dave Kinkead

G'day, I'm Dave!

I work at the intersection of philosophy and technology. I'm a computational philosopher at the University of Queensland where I teach critical thinking, research digital pedagogies, and manage the UQ Critical Thinking Project. When I'm not thinking about thinking, I'm working on becoming a millionaire ski bum.

So far I've nailed the ski bumming bit.