Failing … To Learn

Dr. Brian Goldman is an emergency-room medical doctor and host of the excellent CBC radio program White Coat, Black Art. As I was tidying up some computer files I came across some notes from one of his CBC radio appearances from 18 May, 2011.

Goldman was discussing mistakes in the context of medical practice, and he observed that the secrecy surrounding mistakes (doctors don’t tell each other about them, and if it becomes known that a doctor has made a serious mistake, then it is difficult for other doctors to look the “mistaken” doctor in the eye) inhibits discussions about mistakes and efforts to minimize them. He said that in places where doctors do admit mistakes to patients, malpractice lawsuits are actually less frequent!

You can read media reports about a 2010 study published in Annals of Internal Medicine in Business Week and The New York Times, for example. The latter does a good job of describing the strain that doctors suffer, particularly when they are ordered by their legal departments not to speak to grieving families of dead patients, and includes links to other studies.

A particularly memorable phrase from Goldman, which he attributes to one of his mentors, is:

“Good judgement comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgement.”

Isn’t this a wonderful insight, which applies much more generally than medicine? The implications for parenting and education are clear to me: As parents and as teachers, we need to provide a safe, supportive environment where children and students are able to fail without penalty. Once students learn that failure is a normal part of the learning process, they will become more creative and dynamic learners.

If one fails correctly, then one actually learns, whereas if one is paralyzed and ceases trying because of fear of failure, then one does not learn. Consider current widespread grading and testing policies and the anxiety they induce. University professors out there, how many students do you have that are truly enthusiastic about learning? And how many are concerned primarily with what will be on the exam?

John A. Wheeler: “Make as many mistakes as you can, as fast as you can.”

Winston Churchill: “Success is the ability to go from one failure to the next with no loss of enthusiasm.”

In the basketball world, if a defender is not fouling at all, it’s usually a sign that he is not exerting enough effort. Similarly in life, if you are not failing at all, then you are not trying hard enough. This makes “Failure is not an option” a silly way to think, as pointed out by Seth Godin.

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About Santo D'Agostino

I have taught mathematics and physics since the mid 1980s. I have also been a textbook writer/editor since then. Currently I am working independently on a number of writing and education projects while teaching physics at my local university. I love math and physics, and love teaching and writing about them. My blog also discusses education, science, environment, etc. Further resources, and online tutoring, can be found at my other site
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4 Responses to Failing … To Learn

  1. I love failing without penalty, and it’s part of the reason why I often learn more on my own than I do from courses. But I don’t think failing without penalty can work in a learning institute when everyone needs to be graded.

    I think I’m struggling right now with fear of failure (and learned helplessness) when it comes to Calculus. I need it to graduate because it’s a required course in my program. Knowing that *I* won’t need to use Calculus for anything I’ll be doing later in life doesn’t make the situation any better. It doesn’t encourage me to try harder, and trying harder just to pass a course has never worked well as encouragement for me. How it is now, I’d have to put in an enormous amount of effort, but there is very little to gain in return, in my opinion at least.

    P.S. I had no idea you had a blog! You have some very interesting blog posts here.
    I saw on your About page that you’ve resigned your permanent position. Are you still at the university part-time? I haven’t seen you around since the chess club days.

    • Hi Dennis,

      Nice to hear from you, and glad to hear you’re close to graduating! Thanks for your kind words about the blog!

      Your comment that you often learn more on your own than in courses is telling … we’re doing something wrong in the formal education system, and we need to make some changes. One of my arguments is that grades are not really necessary, and in fact contribute to the ineffectiveness of our education system.

      There is an argument that calculus is essential for learning computer science, because it gives you certain thinking skills that are essential in your program. I don’t know enough about computer science to know whether this is true, but if you’re nearing graduation and you haven’t taken calculus yet, I think you have a right to ask the question, “So what essential thinking tools am I supposed to get from calculus? If I have been successful in my program without taking calculus, is there another way to obtain these essential thinking tools besides taking formal courses in calculus, particularly if the content of calculus courses will not be needed in future?” I would be interested to hear answers to these questions from computer scientists.

      I have decided not to teach for the moment, as I am busy with some writing projects. However, I do love teaching, so I expect I’ll go back to teaching somewhere, sometime! Who knows where or when?

      Best wishes in completing your program and graduating, Dennis! Keep in touch, and let me know how your career goes!


  2. > There is an argument that calculus is essential for learning computer science, because it gives you certain thinking skills that are essential in your program.

    This may be true, but if it is, I haven’t encountered any situations like that yet (i.e. moments where I wish I knew calculus, though I could be missing a lot of those moments in the first place because I need calculus to recognize them). I consider myself fairly successful in my program; I get good grades in my CS courses, I read a lot on related topics, have many personal projects, and even do tutoring on the side. Yet the closest I have come to using calculus in CS was probably when dealing with artificial neural networks, as they make use of gradient descent. A high-level understanding was good enough to know why it worked and to implement it, without going into the calculus details.

    Last semester I took the introductory combinatorics course (MATH 2P71) and I believe I’ve developed some very useful essential thinking skills from it – how to count. This skill has already been useful for me outside the course. I think combinatorics should be a required course for CS because you come across counting problems often, much more than calculus problems — at least in my experience, it could differ depending on which path you take.

    One thing I never understood about calculus courses (and some other courses) is that students are not allowed to use notes (e.g. “cheat sheets” or open book). In the majority of my courses we’re allowed to use notes because the class isn’t about whether you can memorize formulas but about whether you can think about the subject and know how to approach problems. If I can use notes and references when solving problems at home or on the job, why should I memorize things when being “tested” in a controlled environment?

    I hope your writing projects are going well. Currently I’m deciding if I should go to grad school, go for a B.Ed., or start my career. So many choices, and I’m scared of making one that I’ll regret.
    I’ll keep in touch and stop by your blog from time to time!

    • If it’s true that you can be quite successful in a CS program without knowing calculus, then it seems harsh to make students jump through that hoop. This goes to the heart of the debate about the structure of education. Currently, programs are somewhat rigid, with quite a number of required courses. I think it makes sense from a pedagogical standpoint to make programs a lot more flexible, and even do away with courses per se. For example, if you need to learn just a little calculus, why should you be forced to sit through an entire course? It would be better to focus on whatever projects interest you, learn how to successfully take a project from idea to completion, and then pick up what you need to learn as you need it. But it’s very difficult to implement these kinds of changes, even if we would have general agreement that it would be better for students.

      Your point about tests and having open books or formula sheets is a good one.

      Best wishes in your choice! It is definitely a scary time, but in your case it could be that all three choices are good ones. (And to some extent, you can always change course from one to another if you try one path and decide after a while to try something different.) If this is the case, then you’ll be good no matter what you choose, and you can just pick whichever path seems closest to your heart at the moment.

      It will be nice to hear from you from time to time when you get a chance!

      All the best, Dennis!


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