Failure should be an option for feedback

Whether children should be allowed to fail has been a subject of discussion in the Twittersphere this week.

I don’t believe children should be allowed to fail, if by that you mean allowing them to drown if they don’t master the butterfly stroke.

I do believe in allowing trial and error. The errors from such experiences are not failures but feedback.

In his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi summarizes studies of how people feel when they are engaged in some enjoyable task. The first four of his eight observations of what makes an experience genuinely satisfying — the state he calls flow — have particular  relevance to a discussion of the role of failure in learning:

First, the experience [of flow] usually occurs when we confront tasks we have a chance of completing. Second, we must be able to concentrate on what we are doing. Third and fourth, the concentration is usually possible because the task undertaken has clear goals and provides immediate feedback.

That list describes features that enable students to spend hours engrossed in video games. The list should also describe well-designed classroom learning projects. Moreover, even when for logistic reasons teachers cannot use learning projects, the list should also give clear criteria for alternative strategies, namely:

  • Potential for task completion
  • Ability to concentrate on the task
  • Clear goals for task
  • Immediate feedback