Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Failure as a Learning Tool

Photo via (cc) Flickr user nicolasnova
'Failure is not an option' has become a mantra of sorts for parents as they push their children to reach their potential. However, new research in the American Psychological Association's Journal of Experimental Psychology: General concludes children might perform better in school if teachers and parents sent the message that failing is a normal part of learning.

"Acknowledging that difficulty is a crucial part of learning could stop a vicious circle in which difficulty creates feelings of incompetence that in turn disrupts learning," says Frederique Autin, one of the authors of the study. The findings challenge the cultural belief that achievement reflects students' academic ability. If we truly want students to excel, Autin says, teachers and parents must stop "focusing solely on grades and test scores" and emphasize progress instead.

The learning environment of a Montessori classroom and selected activities are prepared to interest and motivate the child and to protect him from unnecessary failure. Dr. Montessori said, "Never let a child risk failure until he has a reasonable chance of success." The Montessori materials develop basic problem solving and observational techniques. The child begins in the concrete with manipulative materials and gradually works toward the abstract. This provides children with the necessary tools to problem solve and actually think.

Will Wright, a former Montessori student and the developer of the computer simulation city building game SimCity was featured the New Yorker discussing the influence his early education had on his life.
Will Wright (Portrait by Julian Dufort)

"Wright flourished in the local Montessori school, with its emphasis on creativity, problem-solving, and self-motivation. ‘Montessori taught me the joy of discovery... It showed you can become interested in pretty complex theories, like Pythagorean theory, say, by playing with blocks. It’s all about learning on your terms, rather than a teacher explaining stuff to you. SimCity comes right out of Montessori—if you give people this model for building cities, they will abstract from it principles of urban design.’"

Wright then compares his experience in Montessori to traditional education: "The problem with our education system is we’ve taken this kind of narrow, reductionist, Aristotelian approach to what learning is.... It’s not designed for experimenting with complex systems and navigating your way through them in an intuitive way, which is what games teach. It’s not really designed for failure, which is also something games teach. I mean, I think that failure is a better teacher than success. Trial and error, reverse-engineering stuff in your mind—all the ways that kids interact with games—that’s the kind of thinking schools should be teaching. And I would argue that as the world becomes more complex, and as outcomes become less about success or failure, games are better at preparing you. The education system is going to realize this sooner or later."

SimCity game has arguably become the single most influential work of urban-design theory based on the shear volume of players that have become architects and designers.

As Maria Montessori expressed, to teach the child to say: “I am not perfect; I am not omnipotent; but this much I can do and know that I can make mistakes and correct myself, thus finding my way.”