What if the Secret to Success Is Failure? How do we support failure, and rising above it?

November 2, 2011 at 8:09 am 2 comments

Roger Schank has been saying for years that learning only occurs through failure.  Mazur’s results about physics demonstrations support Schank’s claim — you only learn from a physics demonstration if you first make a prediction, so that you can be proven wrong.  If we take that seriously, we see that an important goal for schooling is to provide many opportunities to fail, and to recover from that failure.  High-stakes testing, where you get one shot and the cost of failure is high, is the opposite of that.  We need to teach students to have “grit” (see below from NYTimes), to pick themselves up after failure and keep going.

She developed a test to measure grit, which she called the Grit Scale. It is a deceptively simple test, in that it requires you to rate yourself on just 12 questions, from “I finish whatever I begin” to “I often set a goal but later choose to pursue a different one.” It takes about three minutes to complete, and it relies entirely on self-report — and yet when Duckworth took it out into the field, she found it was remarkably predictive of success. At Penn, high grit ratings allowed students with relatively low college-board scores to nonetheless achieve high G.P.A.’s. Duckworth and her collaborators gave their grit test to more than 1,200 freshman cadets as they entered West Point and embarked on the grueling summer training course known as Beast Barracks. The military has developed its own complex evaluation, called the Whole Candidate Score, to judge incoming cadets and predict which of them will survive the demands of West Point; it includes academic grades, a gauge of physical fitness and a Leadership Potential Score. But at the end of Beast Barracks, the more accurate predictor of which cadets persisted and which ones dropped out turned out to be Duckworth’s 12-item grit questionnaire.

via What if the Secret to Success Is Failure? – NYTimes.com.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Mike Byrne  |  November 4, 2011 at 2:51 am

    The idea that we can ONLY learn through failure is ludicrous. Can we learn from failure? Yes. Do we often learn better from failure? Sure. But to claim that we ONLY learn through failure is nonsense. (I want to say much worse things than “nonsense” but I’m trying to be polite here.)

    Example 1: Talk to people who learn in all kinds of motor domains, like golf swings. You HAVE to get it right to learn what “right” feels like. You learn what “right” feels like so you can reproduce it, and you learn as much, or more, from getting it right once than you do from multiple failures.

    Example 2: We’ve only known for, uhh, roughly forever, that rewards work (at least some of the time–I know better than to go universal here). You generally only get rewarded when you get it right. The reward strengthens the association to the correct behavior, which is a form of learning.

    Example 3: We’ll stay all-CS for this one. Genetic algorithms learn only from success. This has been used as a criticism of GAs from some corners–like Marvin Minsky–but the fact is that they DO learn, and only from success.

    Maybe these aren’t the kinds of learning that Schank cares about, but they’re most definitely learning, and to claim that all learning requires failure is… (trying to be nice, argh)… incorrect.

    Reply
  • 2. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  November 4, 2011 at 9:35 am

    Your idea is correct, but the argument is weak. Genetic algorithms require differences in result to learn—it is not success or failure that they need but feedback indicating a difference between better and worse performance.

    I would argue that the same is true of most school learning—making everyone feel successful all the time (or a failure all the time) does not provide them the feedback to know what works and what doesn’t. They get the most learning by getting positive rewards for doing well and negative reinforcement for doing poorly. The hard part for teachers is getting the level of reinforcement right—for one student a slight frown that is not even related to the student’s performance can be devastating, while for another student even failing grades have no effect. (On the other side, even the highest honors a school can provide may not provide enough reward to motivate some students, while getting a B+ instead of a B on a quiz can be powerful for others.)

    Things are further complicated by the need to be fair—you can’t give the top student in the class a lower grade than the bottom student, even if the top student is working nowhere near what they could be doing (and needs feedback letting them know this) and the bottom student has been making remarkable progress in catching up from being 5 years behind grade level.

    Reply

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