2016 lessons learned – The importance of failure as a tool in learning

If I had to narrow down 2016 to one lesson learned, I think it would have to be the importance of failure in learning. In a couple of courses that I had a hand in designing this past year, we integrated several pieces of discovery learning. In one case it was a series of simple fill in the blank questions, and in another a drag and drop interaction. These interactions preceded the dive into content, and our SMEs were strangely resistant to the strategy. One remarked that “It’s not fair to test someone on something they haven’t learned yet. People don’t like it. You’re setting them up to fail.” It took us a fair amount of time to explain that the learners were not being tested, and that getting the wrong answer can be the beginning of the learning process. So you could say I had failure on the brain in 2016; and when in November I attended DevLearn 2016, it all seemed to coalesce. Failure seemed to be an overarching theme, and in the best possible way.

Tony DeRose, Research Group Lead at Pixar, was Day 2 keynote. His presentation, “Creativity and Problem Solving at Pixar”, provided a window into how the scientific and research personnel at Pixar support the animators and help bring their artistic visions to life. STEM subjects aren’t often thought of as creative, but the work culture at Pixar is a great example of how those high school science and math classes that you thought were totally useless can be applied in imaginative ways and with concrete results. Mr. DeRose discussed several education initiatives that Pixar supports, notably MakerEd, a non-profit organization that “supports a flexible club model that trains educators to bring together a community of young people with mentors, who together make an interest-driven project and exhibit it at a showcase event” and Pixar in a Box, a collection of on-line learning videos created in collaboration with the Khan Academy. Both initiatives are designed to stimulate the interest of middle and high school students, and demonstrate the relevance of their math, science, and engineering courses.

Favorite takeaways:

We fail our way to success.
There is creative potential in just about every discipline.
[People that work in] creative organizations critique each other in a positive way.

Shawn Rosler (@rosler) and Sarah Gilbert (@melsgilbert) put together a hilarious (and sometimes slightly uncomfortable) exercise in auto critique in their presentation “eLearning Dirty Secrets: Our Worst Examples.” Panelists displayed examples of…well, let’s just say, not their best work (notably, a course which involved ninja penguins), and walked through the egregious design flaws in each. While all in good fun, it was a very effective discussion on what not to do in eLearning. It also brought home how quickly eLearning has evolved, and specifically how attitudes about user interface, text, and graphics have changed radically over a short period of time. While this session wasn’t about failure, per se, it did focus on how we can learn to recognize and learn from past mistakes.

Favorite takeaways:

Learning objectives are for design (and don’t need to appear in the course itself).
As learning professionals, we should never stop learning ourselves. Meet people, talk, connect, compare. It can only make our work better!

Maxwell Planck, formerly at Pixar and current VR Story Producer at Oculus Story Studio gave a keynote presentation on “Why New Realities Require New Narratives.” Planck’s personal experience of leaving a rewarding –but ultimately “safe” job – for new professional challenges at Oculus informed much of his presentation, and several of the business practices put in place at Oculus Story Studio are designed to encourage risk-taking and creativity (free days, studio jams, rough assembly), but not necessarily to discourage failure, which is considered a useful impetus for discovery. As an aside, the visuals that accompanied his presentation were truly stunning, and provide a window into the future of storytelling in VR environments. Looping back to Tony DeRose’s presentation, I find it interesting that two wildly creative, cutting edge organizations (Pixar and Oculus) insist on the importance of failure as a means toward progress.

Favorite takeaways:

We’re going to fail faster, which means that we’re going to get better faster.
Entertaining is a lot like teaching: it’s visual, auditory, and kinesthetic.

As we’re gearing up to take on our 2017 projects, I’m going to try to do a little risk taking. If it doesn’t work out, I’m sure I’ll have learned something that I’ll be able to apply elsewhere. And I’m going to do my best to remember – and remind our clients – that “fail” is a great acronym for “first attempt at learning.”

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