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Michael Hickey

Training & Development Manager,

TEDCRED 30+

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How do we overcome the tendency to slip back into the old routine of life - and truly capture and ACT on the lessons in talks like this?

Like many talks, there are profound thoughts shared here which no doubt resonate deeply with many people. I have experienced this feeling on many occasions and vowed to make significant changes in my life. However, all too often, I have found that after a short period of time I have fallen back into the old routine – having failed to embed the key lessons into the way I live my life.

Am I alone in this? I doubt it.
If it is a common problem, why do we do this?
What does it take to truly make a difference in ones approach to life and is it about the message or oneself?

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  • Apr 25 2011: I want to address your second question: why our brains operate this way ... it's a matter of evolutionary design. In order to survive, we simply cannot use our brainpower to its full capacity every waking moment of every day. If we did, we would stagnate. Instead, our brains pick up on patterns and trends, solidify them, and they become "habits". These habits free up our brain and mental energy, so that we can master increasingly more complex tasks. So ... habits are a sort of necessary byproduct of our brains capacity to multi-task and make harder / faster decisions. In short: our brain is designed for efficiency, not necessarily quality (the McGurk effect is a great example, stereotyping is another easy one, the way we can write with our eyes closed, so on and so fourth).

    Quite a few people have offered anecdotal and personal advice to combat this tendency, but I would like to view the problem as a macroscopic concern. I think one of the driving forces behind this trend is the fact that, from a very early age, we stigmatize failure in the classroom. Our students believe that being wrong is inherently a terribly quality ... in fact, the opposite is true. Being wrong is the only thing that is guaranteed to happen in a classroom. The only way to get better at anything is to accept the fact that failure is inevitable.

    By outlawing failure in our classrooms, we are systematically undermining our own capacity to take risks (which is fairly low to begin with). Instead, we ought to recognize that failure is not only acceptable, but something we ought to embrace. By embracing fallibility, we become more willing to take risks, change ourselves, come up with new ideas, and new ways of looking at the world.
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      Apr 25 2011: Hello DJ,
      Are you suggesting that failure in the educational system sets most people up for a sort of learned helplessness? That is an interesting take on this and it could be true. Learned helplessness makes it less likely that we will try again or be able to sustain any new effort. It makes us more vulnerable to any negative information or experienc.e.
      • Apr 26 2011: Hi Debra!

        You make me feel long winded ... learned helplessness is a great way to package what I'm driving at. However, it's not just failure in the educational system, but how we deal with failure within our schools that bothers me the most.

        For example, as it is now, "failing" a grade is practically irrevocable. If you fail, you will be viewed as stupid, unintelligent, completely unworthy of academic attention from your peers, teachers, etc. However, as anyone who has ever mastered anything can tell you, failure is a necessary step along the path to success ...

        ... so why are we so hesitant to tell our students they failed? Well, we wouldn't want them to think that they were anything less than super-duper-awesome at everything they do! What would happen to their self-esteem?!

        The fact of the matter is, we're not doing them any favors. We're educating generation after generation of people who simply cannot handle failure. This not only creates the sense of "learned helplessness", but (coming full circle) means they are less likely to take any new, creative risks in their lives, and more likely to rely on habits and preconceived notions.

        Long story short: failure is a good thing, and we need to treat it as such.
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          Apr 26 2011: HI DJ,
          I agree. There is so much being done to make kids fit systems rather than to make systems fit kids. While failure has its place and its purpose I really feel that we can build it into day to day learning in a way that makes it just part of life instead of a trauma. Failure as framed now is truly a social faux pas. We could, however, make complicated learning tasks into games where failure has no more significance that it does in a video game. We can teach kids complex and thereby very interesting things at their own pace in game environments so that the gifted kids fly ahead and then are forced to attempt a variety of tactics to surmount problems that do not come naturally to them while at the same time in the same game encouraging kids with intellectual challenges to shine as they try and fail and try and succeed while having fun.
          It is the stigma of not marching lock step with their peers that is the trauma and the major failure of educational systems as we know them. Few people have the same length of legs so why would be assume all kids have the same intellectual endowments and why would be ever choose a system that was not the best we could create?
    • Apr 27 2011: We fit kids to system for the simple reason that the economy requires it. School is essentially designed to be a scaled down version of the workplace and introduces children to the idea of a 9-5 goal oriented lifestyle. It maybe shortsighted but that is the reason.

      Talking of embracing failure sounds hip but is nonsense, in fact the whole discourse on pass/fail is what is the problem. You cannot talk about the merits of failure without seeing how we contextually deal with concept of passing. The critical part of this whether you desire to improve.

      The dangerous thing about embracing failure is that if applied uncritically, it breeds mediocrity. The broader point is not just that failure is a social faux-pas but that passing is seen as a social norm. In truth, we can always do better and crucially do more than we think we can. Rather than blindly embrace failure as a good thing as many people say, we need to abandon the concept of binary pass/fail and look to simply building on what we have, whatever that is.

      I would rather have a society of striving 'failures' than lazy 'passes' but you have to ask why we love to compare ourselves. Only being free from your ego will help but if you are so, then why have the concept of self-improvement?

      But to take it back to the talk, isn't one message, that life is too short to fail?
      Then you will say it depends what you call failure and ergo, why do we talk in terms of pass/fail?

      Could it be happiness = pass?
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        Apr 27 2011: Christopher, Thanks for engaging me in this discussion! I happily disagree with most of what you have said. Embracing the fact that human beings learn by a process which includes failing is simply embracing fact. Kids learn to walk by fallling down a lot. They learn everything they do by trying and failing and trying again until they get it right. If we can keep that process on track it is nothing more than a step on the way to sucess but as we present it in school systems today it is a big faux pas and a cause for shame. We can transfer the existing system into a more productive process where as in a gaming system it is just like a scientific process of tiral and error. The economy does not require it- we just have not found the way to implement a better system yet.
        • Apr 28 2011: I'm not sure what you disagree with, I don't deny there is a learning process, it is how that process is parsed into designations of success and failure. My point is, from a philosophical standpoint, if you like the concept of passing, and it is desireable then the concept of failing has to bad. If you aim to succeed, you are also by definition aiming not to fail. That is why it is a faux pas.

          Therefore, the system is already rigged to avoid failure. So, why not just go straight to focussing on the fundamental attribute and think instead of constant progression. Grading kids as a percentage increase on their previous score is one way to show progress rather than absolute achievement. The Khan academy is developing many tools to help teachers understand that kids learn in different ways, speeds and trajectories.

          Basically, you just have to redefine success as the spirit to keep trying and improving in a constructive manner.
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        Apr 28 2011: Hi Christopher! Thanks for taking the time to clarify that for me. You are right. We are far more in alignment than I first perceived.
        • Apr 28 2011: Is it possible that the education system might learn something here from business -- ie: the concept of continuous improvement, kaizen? Deming's philosophy was always that it really doesn't matter how well or poorly you did last month, the important thing is to analyze what you could have done better. For that reason he hated extrinsic motivators and targets (cf. tests in school?).
      • Apr 28 2011: "The critical part of this whether you desire to improve."

        I think this is what I should have been driving at initially, and your shift in focus improves my argument. The end goal for embracing failure is not to embrace failure just for failures sake, but to cause our students to be intrinsically motivated. In my mind, this is the biggest shortcoming for the current system of education.

        Of all the things we could possibly teach, teaching people to be motivated to learn just for the sake of learning has got to be near (if not at) the top. It ensures lifelong drive and progression. Our grading system, which uses "points" in the place of carrots on sticks, completely obliterates that inner drive ... a drive which, I must point out, all children are born with.
        • May 1 2011: The education system is peverse in the sense that it aims to an end point, the test, graduation etc. No other area of life is like this. Everything else is a continuous process.

          The stigmatisation of failure exists because there is the culture if you don't know it by the time you graduate, you will never will and worse, there is no point in finding out. Once we embrace lifelong learning, we can make progress. Currently a big motivation for learning is to pass a test so you can stop learning!

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