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.

Related posts:

(This post first appeared at my other (now deleted) blog, and was transferred to this blog on 21 January 2021.)