Education and Learning #1

“Most of my chess growth came from studying my losses very deeply…” –Josh Waitzkin

This Authors@Google interview with Josh Waitzkin lasts about an hour. He talks about chess, martial arts, learning. It is a little abstract, with a sprinkling of Oriental philosophy, sometimes on the edge of flakiness — but not quite over the edge. I follow him, even when he talks about playing 40 games of chess with 40 opponents at one time, moving from board to board, and all of the games somehow converge in his mind into a single big game, in which each board is a part…

What he says about loss and failure — rather, the importance and value of loss and failure — must feel like a surprise bee sting to a lolling, complacent education establishment wanting to ensure that no child is left behind, that every student succeeds, that Self Esteem is forever protected and pampered.

Self esteem is all very well in its own place, alongside other “self” stuff, like self-deception and selfishness, but with respect to education, what if real growth in skills, knowledge and understanding depends on failure, loss and pain?

Josh Waitzkin doesn’t so much make a case for the importance of failure, he simply testifies to his own experience: “I hardly remember the wins… what I remember are the losses…” And he makes connections between seemingly different failures in different areas of life…

I’m a programmer[1], and if I look at programming in a certain light, I see that what I do when I attack a problem is fail my way through it.

In programming, failure happens at every level, from the whiteboard planning to the last lines of svn-committed code, and even beyond, as bugs are discovered by users.

Try something. It doesn’t work. Examine the failure and what you did. Try something else. It doesn’t work. Examine the failure and what you did. Try something else… Pretty soon it works and you move on to the next iterations of try-fail-examine.

With energetic debate as the soundtrack, whiteboard lists, illustrations, boxes and arrows are erased and new ones fill the space. While coding, methods are written, then moved, then split into new methods; lines are written, then deleted, replaced by new lines in different places. The erasing, moving, splitting, deleting, replacing… all articulate on instances of failure.

It’s not just failure. It’s failure followed by study of the failure. If contemporary pop education were to suddenly stand on its head and junk all the self esteem rubbish — let students fail, tell them plainly they’ve failed, and when necessary, contrive to make them fail — that would not, in itself, improve learning. But it would create a context in which great learning is possible.

Take a picture of this:

A professor introduces himself on the first day of class and says, “This is a two semester course. Every one of you in this room will fail the first semester.

“If you are really sharp, learn the material, solve the problems I give you to solve… I’ll give you more material and tougher problems. Solve those and you get even tougher problems. The problems will keep coming until you get one that can be solved by someone, but you can’t solve it, even when you stay up all night, then miss fall break to work on it.

“You will fail this semester.”

[Even the burnouts at the back of the room are awake and sitting up straight.]

The professor continues: “In this semester, although you will fail, by the end you will be able to analyze a problem, develop a coherent plan, and write respectable code to solve the problem. You’ll be valuable to an employer because of your analytical and programming skill. But the main thing you must learn this semester is how to study your own failure.

“That’s what we will do in this class: Study failure. Learn to describe it accurately and completely. Learn to break a failure into its components and analyze each component, figure out how 3 or 4 small components of a failure work together to cause a single big failure… But not just any failure. Your failure. Not the failure of other people, in other places, or in history. You will study your own failure, and in that you will become an expert.”

hmm… That sounds like a class that would be worth taking. For credit.

What if we take the word “chess” out of Josh Waitzkin’s quote above?

“Most of my __________ growth came from studying my losses very deeply…”

Take that as a starting point for an approach to learning and education. Build a course of study on that concept. What does it look like?


Kings of Convenience: Failure


[1] QA Software Engineer, to be more specific


About pmbarry

One of these days a man's gonna walk up to you with a shoe on one foot and a boot on the other, and he's gonna tell you 'bout things you ain't never heard of.
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