Should We Design Learning to be Failsafe? Or Safe to Fail?

people learning in water Pilates class on floating boards in pool

Learners poised for non-catastrophic failure

I pushed out of my comfort zone yesterday to learn something new.   I’m pretty open to new things in my wheelhouse – I tend to feel pretty confident with new technologies or new recipes, things which stretch learning skills which are generally pretty well-toned.  But this, this was a new physical challenge, and I have, for my entire life, been slower-than-average in learning new physical skills.

For the longest time, that weakness in my learning portfolio (and teasing by merciless classmates) led me to simply avoid physical challenges, believing that I was just “not an athlete.”   That attitude, which Carol Dweck, the Stanford professor and motivation researcher, calls a “fixed mindset,” wasn’t really challenged until college, when I started dating a marathoner and found to my surprise that with a little work, I could actually perform pretty well in distance running.  Even then, I reasoned that the running was a bit of an outlier.  My dad had run competitively and my great-grandfather had been an Olympian on the high bikes, and I’d inherited their long legs, so it must be genetic endowment at work!

When I decided to join my kids in their karate class, it was without expecting much besides the opportunity to get a workout in while performing child-enrichment duties – a big win for a time-strapped working mother of three!  Sure enough, I was slower-than-average at learning karate. But in an atmosphere in which poking fun at weakness was strictly prohibited, I relaxed into the tasks at hand and slowly but surely achieved mastery.

Recently, I have very much enjoyed the Pilates class offered at the Decatur Family YMCA.  The uber-fit-and-toned Angela manages to imbue the mostly lumpy and bumpy 50-plus-year-old crew in her class with the confidence to challenge ourselves by maintaining a friendly, respectful attitude with a “we can do this!”  approach which acknowledges that what we are doing is HARD, and will take practice to master. As usual, a little persistence has paid off for me in developing “core competence” I’d  NEVER enjoyed before, mostly on account of avoiding ab and back work because I am weak at it and I hate feeling incompetent.

So when the Y announced a new “Core X” class, involving Pilates moves on a large board floating on the surface of the pool, my curiosity was piqued, and I signed up.

To say this class is challenging for me is to deeply understate the situation.  We were encouraged, before class started, to experiment, to figure out how to stand up in a lunge position.  It took me forever, and even then, I was not particularly stable on my strong side.  Lacey, our instructor, taught a very patient class, as everyone dealt with a whole set of new moves and transitions.  At one point, we were to stand in a lunge doing a tricep pull with elastic bands.  I barely managed this on my strong side, and when we shifted to the other side, I had a moment of terror when I realized I was about to lose my balance completely, followed by the  thought “what are you so frightened of, you’ll only land in the pool!” With that, I surrendered to the fall, and was fine.  What was even cooler was that in the time it took to fall into the pool and climb back up, my vestibular, ocular, and musculoskeletal systems had figured something out about how to coordinate to do that rise from knees to feet on the board, and I was able to do it much more quickly and confidently, though not yet well.

The whole experience brings home for me much of what the literature on learning is telling us.  We learn best when we are building on things we already know.  We learn best when the stakes for failure are low. We learn best when we reflect on what we’re learning and our feelings about it. We learn best when we notice that our fear of failure might be overblown. We learn best in an atmosphere which treats failure as an expected part of the process.  We learn best when we have some confidence in our ability to learn.  And we learn best when we aren’t over-thinking, but trying to stay open to all of the new information coming in through all our senses.

My ego apparently still needs regular reinforcement of the idea that anything worth doing is worth doing badly – at least at first.  I find that when I am learning physical things, the first thing I look for is a friendly environment in which it’s safe to look TERRIBLE in the performance of a new skill, because I know that that is always part of my process.  I’m very sure I am not alone in this – the less confident people are about looking good doing something, the more reluctant they are to even try.

What are we doing to make our learning environments places where learners can feel ok about looking bad while they learn?