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What's happening in the world of digital learning?

  • Ashleigh Hull

When We Fail, We Learn

Updated: Dec 2, 2022

How can we harness the power of failure for learning and innovation?

Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.

Henry Ford

Failure is one of the best teachers out there. When you fail, it shows you where the gaps in your knowledge are; and therefore, where you can improve.

Gaming is all about learning through failure. You try something that doesn’t work, then you try something else, and you repeat until you find the solution (that’s why games work so well in elearning). And because of this, gamers are excellent problem solvers. They can think around an issue. They are persistent, refusing to quit until they’ve succeeded. For gamers, failure is the way they learn, and ultimately the way they win.

But in the real world we act like failure is the worst thing that could happen to us. We don’t allow room for mistakes. We live with a sometimes crippling fear of not reaching targets or goals.If we don’t recognise that our inevitable failures can be a good thing, and that we can learn from them, we miss out on a phenomenal opportunity.

Check your mindset

There are two ways of thinking about failure. Carol Dweck describes these as a ‘fixed mindset’ and a ‘growth mindset’.

Fixed mindset: believing that intelligence and abilities are fixed traits.

Growth mindset: understanding that intelligence and abilities can be developed.

So in other words, people with a fixed mindset believe that if you’re not good at something, it’s because you just don’t have the talent or ability for it. And you never will.

But people with a growth mindset (e.g., gamers) would look at that same thing as something you haven’t got the talent or ability for — yet. They would believe that as you persevere and continue learning, you will eventually succeed. One views failure as the end of the line; the other views failure as a stepping stone to success.

How about you? Do you see failure as the place that defines your limits?

What if, instead, you started to think of failure as merely a sign that you have not yet achieved all that you’re capable of?

Make room for innovation

How we treat failure is important on more than just a personal level.

If your organisational culture is one that allows no room for failure, people will be so scared of it that they won’t risk or try. They’ll give up after the first hurdle, thinking that if they aren’t capable of achieving something now, they never will be.

But imagine the opposite. Imagine a place where your colleagues and superiors are more interested in your attempt, your idea, your process, than they are in whether you achieved some narrow definition of success. These organisations would produce people with the qualities that gamers have. They would be problem solvers: people who can think around an issue, rather than those who find that the prescribed way won’t work and are therefore stuck. They would have a greater confidence in themselves, would be more persistent, and so would be more likely to learn, develop, and ultimately succeed.

And this organisation would be characterised by innovation. You can’t have innovation without failure — creativity and growth come with risk attached. This is what gamers know. When you try out something new, there’s a chance it’ll fail. We need to remove this fear of failure because if you’re afraid to fail, you won’t risk it. And if you won’t risk, then there’s no opportunity for innovation. If gamers didn’t risk failure, they’d never progress, and that’s just as true in the real world. What’s more dangerous — the possibility of failure, or the possibility of losing out on new ideas and opportunities? We need to reduce the stigma of failure; maybe redefine what success means altogether. We need to value process over outcome. That’s the only way we can truly innovate.

Start in the virtual world

Elearning can be a good way into this mindset or culture where failure is OK. It can be a place where people take those first, hesitant risks that they would be terrified to go for in the real world. The virtual learning environment can be a place where it’s safe to try something new. As in gaming, mistakes are not disastrous in elearning. They just show you where you can improve. There’s no fear of them, because failure is not the end. When we fail, we learn.

And if people start to think this way about failure; if that message is reinforced in your company training as well as staff attitude and the way the organisation reacts to failure; you will start to see a shift towards this freeing, creative culture where people come up with brand new solutions.

Of course, not all elearning will work this way. A lot of elearning allows no opportunity for failure at all. It will simply present you with information, force you to click ‘Next’ until your hand is numb, and then bid you a good day.

We all deserve better than that.

There’s so much going on in elearning at the moment - interactive videos, scenario-based learning, games of course — ways of teaching that immerse you in the content, and, yes, allow you the opportunity to fail. In a branching scenario, you can try things out that you’d never dare in the real world, and see how the consequences play out. With an interactive video you can have constant feedback, telling you in the moment where you went wrong or where you can improve. In a gamified piece of content, you can approach problems in myriad different ways, and fail over and over again until you find one that works or just one that works for you. When elearning does the job it’s supposed to do — when it’s innovative and engaging — it provides this space for us to be creative risk-takers.

And, elearning developers, a note to you — don’t be afraid of failure in your own work. Try new technologies, new ways of engaging your learners. It’s through people daring to innovate that we got all the exciting technology we’re using now. Want to be someone who moves your industry forward? Dare to try. Risk failing. Learn, and improve.


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