We learn from failure more than success

Samuel Smiles, a Scottish author, said:

We learn wisdom from failure much more than from success. We often discover what will do, by finding out what will not do; and probably he who never made a mistake never made a discovery.

Kenneth Boulding, an economist and systems scientist, said:

Nothing fails like success because we don’t learn from it. We learn only from failure.

Given our schools’ dominant emphasis on getting the right answer, I wonder how often students get a chance to actually learn from their failures (as opposed to simply being told that they are unsuccessful or incorrect). I’m guessing probably not enough…

14 Responses to “We learn from failure more than success”

  1. I see it differently.

    The rub is in HOW we deal with success. If we focus on failure we will see more failure. If we celebrate success and focus our efforts on creating more of it, we’ll get more of it.

    Success as part of a process rather than the end result.

  2. There is a wonderful TED talk about this by Sir Ken Robinson that talks about how schools are killing creativity by making mistakes painful.

    Makes me wonder why we are spending so much effort on testing and less on project-based, open-ended, experimental experiences.


  3. I’m not convinced the first statement is true – we do learn from our mistakes, yes, but we also learn from our successes. The problem with learning from successes is there’s a limit to the amount of reinforcement we can get.

    Consider walking. At the start we get it wrong, often. We don’t necessarily hit on a good method all that quickly, but once we do we practise the good method a lot and the bad methods less and less, until we feel pretty much 100% successful. Then we meet alcohol, extreme fatigue, fashionable (but impractical shoes) and so on, and start failing once again. But without those successes to start us learning the right way, we’d still be crawling (and thus have really fashionable kneepads instead!).

    I rather suspect it’s the same with everything, at least if we get decent feedback about failures. We learn from the failures and the successes – the carrot and the stick. But, for a period after we start getting it right we still learn and reinforce from the successes, then skill becomes well embedded and we stop learning appreciably until it fails again for some reason.

    What we remember, however, are the failures. Do you remember each time you crossed the road in the decade in which you were a teenager? Probably not. I remember one notable time though, in which I nearly got run over by a lorry. The failure to spot the lorry and the near-accident make it memorable so we, at a distance only remember the lessons from the failures.

    If we didn’t learn from successes, we’d fail dismally to become good at anything after all because we’d still be failing left, right and centre because we’d not reward the successes and we’d have to try every possible failure method to find the right one, so the proposition doesn’t really stand up to close scrutiny.

  4. Hmmm… I’ve got a link to a TED video and two disagreements that we don’t learn from success (thanks Tracy, Roger, and Eloise!). Anyone got any thoughts about my question regarding whether students actually get to learn from the failures they experience in school?

  5. ok. so I’ll try to actually answer the question.
    The answer is…it depends.
    In my class, yeah. Though I do generally try to set my kids up for success, I let kids fail miserably if they aren’t putting in the effort a task deserves. Then they get the chance to see that effort – hard work – yields success. That it isn’t luck when they do well, but a result of hard work.
    and I think in general, when kids mess up on high stakes exams and then actually try again, yes.
    But it is not built in the system. That last part happens by accident.

    For the record, I still prefer to focus on creating more instances of success. 🙂

  6. Yes, students learn from failure at school if we are brave enough to let them and they are brave enough learn from it. I had a student who would not work, since it was an elective the student thought the grade was never an issue. At semester the student did not pass. A discussion followed with the student, the student actually listened. The next semester the student recieved an A and was one of the students who led the assignments. The easy road would of been to pass the student with a low grade. The easy road for the student would of been to give up. So agian.
    Failure is a learning experience for students and also teachers.

  7. I still have problems attempting to answer a question based on faulty assumptions, because I have to wonder if the question is meaningful.

    In this question I also suspect the answer is that it all depends, which makes me cautious about the value of an answer.

    If students are permitted chances to fail and directions towards not failing in future, then yes they can learn. In small ways they are certainly allowed to fail – grammar, spelling, maths problems etc. and you would hope that most if not all teachers would offer some constructive feedback as well.

    On a bigger scale, students do fail. In the UK we don’t have a system of “holding back” as I believe you do in the US, but students that struggle or fail at 16 and 18 (we take national qualifications at both points and can leave school at 18) are allowed routes back into formal education at all levels in later life. Students who get to university are typically allowed resits and repeat years in year 1 and to repeat year 2 of their degrees if necessary (year 3 is our final year and there are fewer chances there without medical reasons).

    Does our system allow failure and recovery? Sure. Is that the same as learning from failure? That’s not so clear, but without allowing failure and recovery you never get the chance to learn from the failures, so I guess the answer is yes.

    A more interesting question might be should we set our students up to fail more deliberately. It’s certainly possible to imagine situations in which a project is undertaken that has no chance of success – rescue a failing business with no hope for example – because the learning outcomes are not predicated on the success of the project – even if the students fail to understand that. I believe that the army uses this process at least sometimes in its training (Trekkies will tell you that Kirk hacked a test that a guaranteed failure so he could pass it in his training as well), I don’t know that the teaching profession at any level makes regular use of it though?

  8. This is an integral part of why we should take the time to offer extensive comments on the higher level thinking assignments that students turn in.

    The problem is, unless we hold students accountable for reviewing our feedback, most will never contemplate our suggestions.

    This is where the true learning comes in though. A lot of my students will just turn in something to get it done. If we offer valid, and learnable comments and then hold students accountable for what they do with those comments, then they will learn to analyze their work and revise their original (often unthoughtout) ideas and progress.

  9. Do kids learn from failure in our schools? That really depends. I think the real question shouldn’t be about failure itself. It really should be about what happens after a failure.

    Does a student get another chance to learn the topic? Like the resits in Eloise’s entry.

    Will the student be motivated to take advantage of another chance? I bet most of the teachers in here have had a student shut completely down at the first sign of failure. Corey is right, there needs to be accountability, or the I’ve-got-it-done/turned-in/good-enough attitude will sink your efforts. Both student attitudes are problematic.

    Will the teacher (or school) be able to create the opportunity to re-learn the topic? As a parent, I am sometimes surprised by the lack of a spiral in my child’s reading curriculum. Once a topic is presented, it is assumed it is learned and it is not formally revisited later. Your one chance to learn short vowel sounds is in first grade, for example.

    I bet there are some more road blocks to failure being a learning opportunity. I’m thinking that failure is a sign that somethings need to happen next.

  10. Recent research shows that -contrary to what we all believe- we learn more from success than failure. Truly eye opening. http://bit.ly/d8VhV

  11. Alexander Graham Bell is reported to have failed 10,000 times before he made a useful light bulb, bagless vaucuum inventor James Dyson is reported to have buil t 5,127 unsuccessful prototypes before he found a design that worked. ( http://www.fastcompany.com/resources/innovation/watson/112105.html )

    Remember back in the first days of trying to hit the moon with a satellite? The joke went “Close only counts in horseshoes and moon shots.”

    Celebrate failure if you want to succeed.

  12. What do you mean when you say “failure”? How would you define it? I look at what we are calling “failure” as the incremental steps required to achieve success. AG Bell didn’t fail 10,000… he made incremental progress toward his goal through each iteration. Same with Dyson. I think that as long as you can justify how a “failure” moves you closer to success you can learn from it… I’m not totally convinced that there is such thing as total failure (maybe death).

  13. I wonder if we’re often to quick to assign the term “failure” to a situation more accurately described as a mistake, error, or setback. For me, failure is state of collapse and complete lack of function (think engine failure or heart failure), so failure in school by this standard should be rare. Mistakes and setbacks happen all the time, and the most effective teachers I know find ways to turn them into “formative” opportunities. We also learn from success, but in a very different way. While learning from mistakes usually represents an understanding of “what not to do,” learning from success often means understanding “hey, that worked, so now this might also be true.” Thus, learning from mistakes requires little more than an anecdotal process of elimination, but learning from success requires more complex systems thinking (connecting knowledge and making inferences). Failure results from unaddressed and uncorrected mistakes and setbacks that combine to ultimately result in collapse. Dietrich Dorner wrote a great book on this topic http://www.amazon.com/Logic-Failure-Recognizing-Avoiding-Situations/dp/0201479486/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1243962954&sr=8-1.

    Interestingly, this article is hot off the presses at eSchool News: http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/top-news/news-by-subject/technologies/widget/?i=58973

  14. I think it is based on the consequences of either good or bad results. Question being ones interpretation of both failure, or/and success.

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