Failing just hard enough to learn [Learning & Teaching / Riding higher waves Pt. 2.1]

This post is another reflection on the relationship between teaching and self-directed learning. It focuses on how to find a balance with making learning too hard or not hard enough. Thus the title: How can we deliberately make ourselves and/or our students fail just hard enough to learn?

Context: I just found this post in the huge number of unfinished drafts in my WordPress. It was almost done, supposedly from early fall 2021. Some of it are reflections on my own (online) teaching in the summer term of 2021. I thought this was an interesting reflection still, so I decided to fix it up a little and post it now, despite the text not being “new” and some of my thoughts on my own teaching having changed over the last year where I have been teaching more than before as a Postdoc.

Because the draft of this post was already so long and got a little longer with some 2022 notes, I split it into two posts.

Note to my faithful readers: I probably have let you down many times now with this unsteady posting schedule and irregular, rare posts. At some point I had made the choice to post fewer but better rather than regular but shitty posts. Then I really didn’t post at all for quite a long time now. Despite that, I’m still behind on all my other work too ;D (if that makes you feel better in any way). Anyways, I’m trying again to start posting – at least irregularly is better than nothing – because I happened over the blog’s statistics and the blog actually gets a steady number of views. That means we have created a bond here and I have let you down. I don’t want to do that – I love this community and really want to get back into it. Also, my illusions that the PostDoc life would be less stressful than the PhD life after just getting over that initial bump of curing past overwork are gone. This is not going to happen (ever, I fear) and if I want to maintain this blog again, I just need to sit down and write a post. So that’s what I did. Let’s see where it leads. But activating the Ninja again is on my personal todo list right beside updating/actually properly setting up my “professional” website which I haven’t touched since 2020. Oh well, every journey begins with the first step.

Learning about teaching while surfing

Two years ago, I wrote a blogpost about teaching using the metaphor of surfing (Riding higher waves). Now that I have just returned from my latest surfing vacation, I wanted to follow up with some more thoughts.

From my limited experience surfing for a week or so over the last few years so far, I concluded that it’s a normal part of the learning process to have some days where you just want to outdo a three-year-old in the tantrum throwing contest and when that doesn’t work start crying in earnest before I tell myself to be the grown-ass woman that I am and get back on that board.

Back in my last surfing-inspired teaching post, I said that “deep water is not a place to learn the basics.” The stakes are just too high: People could get hurt or in the very least, get scared and demotivated, thus losing their trust in their own capacity to learn those new skills (“self-efficacy”). Thus, to sum it up, a big argument of my last post was that lots of bad teaching is covered up as “students just need to try harder” or something like a supposedly “character building opportunity” when it really is a light form of abuse and making people feel bad about themselves rather than reinforcing their faith in their own ability to improve. The idea of self-efficacy, i.e. believing that you can improve, is crucial for learning! See my post on the growth mindset: The most important book to read if you want to learn Digital Humanities, Computer Science, Maths, Programming or LaTeX.

It’s always easier for me to reflect on teaching when it’s about an actual physical skill. As a teacher, it’s easy to forget what it feels like to learn something. It’s easy to mistake your students for yourself and not see that they just don’t have the muscles and years of experience that you have. Taking surfing lessons has taught me a lot about teaching.

I’m afraid I may have been that teacher with my all-online class this summer term (2021). I didn’t get enough feedback from them. To my defense, it was pretty hard to get feedback when you can’t see your students in online teaching. But at least it produced a few thoughts on how to teach better.

The eternal question: Are students whining or is the teacher failing them?

It’s always difficult to tell whether the students are whining or the teachers are not doing their job. I think it’s probably always a balance somewhere in between. As a teacher it’s easy to reject all responsibility for student’s learning outcomes by saying “students were making more of an effort back then”. But maybe you really didn’t explain things well. Maybe you didn’t pick up the students where they were, didn’t take their previous knowledge into account or overestimated their stamina and energy resources for all that new material in just one session.

Then again, life isn’t just optimum conditions. You want to learn so you can handle any conditions. That’s a difficult balance to strike for the teacher. In the beginning, it’s important that teachers facilitate learning by creating optimum conditions in which skills can be practiced in isolation. But later, you also need to be able to do the whole thing yourself, not just isolated parts in perfect conditions. So when the students are ready, it’s the teachers’ job to challenge them. To show them how they can safely tackle bigger waves. But also give guidance in the process and offer ways to tweak the students’ approach for faster progress. They need to become independent and learn to cope with harsher territory.

But you can’t ask them to face situations for which they simply aren’t ready. This will stress them out, maybe even traumatize them, but won’t allow them to actually learn anything. You can’t ask them to perform feats they physically aren’t able to do. If you overestimated them, you need to correct your expectations and teaching approach accordingly. It’s not the student’s fault that you misassessed their skills. It’s your job to give them an approach which works on their current level. To challenge them but with challenges for which they are ready if they’re willing to really try harder. Not impossible ones. And as simple as it sounds, it obviously isn’t easy. It’s hard to tell for a teacher who already knows the material which parts could be obstacles for students who don’t already know it.

I’m all for figuring things out for yourself. It’s an essential skill, especially for learning to code, LaTeX or DH. But then again, if you have to figure out everything for yourself – what’s the purpose of having a teacher at all? You might as well teach yourself. And don’t get me wrong, I love auto-didactic learning but I’m also a teacher and believe that teachers have to be good for something. I think they’re for accelerating growth and learning, along the lines of what I summarized in How to use Deliberate Practice to reach your Peak [Book Review]. Teachers already know the pitfalls and can spare you some unnecessary negative or time-wasting experiences, thus speeding up the process. If we’re not achieving that, we’re disposable.

But gamification says that the sweet spot for learning is a relatively small failure rate

There’s this super popular TED talk on gamification (“The Super Mario Effect: Tricking your brain into learning more”) which argues that we need to find the sweet spot for failure (supposedly around a 85% success rate, i.e. “much easier” than learning in most formal education settings). That way, gamification keeps us curious but doesn’t drag us down so much that we lose interest or the belief in our self-efficacy, i.e. the belief in our ability to suceed eventually. This sets up the right environment for a growth mindset where we focus on what we can improve rather than beating ourself up for failing (which is a necessary part of learning and without which no learning is going to occur ever).

Can I tell you the secret recipe for how to reconcile these – seemingly contrary – approaches? I can’t. I just know that learning to surf has many moments which suck a lot. But there are fun moments as well. A lot like other learning experiences I have had over the course of my life. I’m sure gamification works really well but does it teach stamina in the same way that less pleasant experiences do? I think you do need stamina at some point if you’re trying to reach an advanced skill level in anything. That doesn’t mean it can’t be fun. I feel the same way about bouldering. Is it a lot of fun at times, especially when I’m succeeding? Sure! But it also isn’t fun when you’re hitting a plateau.

I think that gamification is essential especially in the early phases of learning. First of all, one needs to establish an enviroment where it is safe and ok to fail and ask questions. Once this is in place, students can fail and learn the pleasure of failing. If one can bring in some gamification in the early stages, all the better. This will create motivation and waken students’ curiosity. I think that’s actually what bouldering naturally does. It’s easy to start bouldering. The setup makes it safe to play around. Finishing a route is fun. There are doable ones for each skill level. But finishing the first level makes you want to do more and keep going.


If I could create the same spirit in my classes, that would be ideal. I have seen some promising attempts at TU Graz. However, many of the attempts I have seen so far were about creating peer-pressure and competition which I’m not that happy about. Yes, it works. But it only works for all those who come to those classes with ideal circumstances. Always making a competition out of every learning experience is very demotivating for all those who are struggeling to begin with. Creating a competition usually makes things harder when the idea of gamification would actually be to make it fun and relatively easy (for everybody, with different expectations depending on their skill level). The competition aspect benefits those at the top of the leaderboard but it gives everybody else the impression they’re incompetent and failing compared to the group – even when it’s highly possible they’re making great progress and doing really well given where they started. That’s also what’s good about bouldering: People at different skill levels can have fun together but aren’t required to all tackle the same challenges which are appropriate to some and either unfair or boring to others.

Laziness is a lie

When I discuss teaching and grading with other colleagues, lots of different opinions get thrown around. (And obviously, I don’t think mine are better than anybody else’s – I’m just curious to observe what different opinions the others have and how they came to those opinions.) Some say that the longer they teach, the stricter they get. And I get it. There are some cases where I feel that being “too soft” or not having clear boundaries with your students can be a hinderance, mostly to the students’ ability to learn and make the most of the classes they’re taking.

But last year I read this book which I found very inspiring: Devon Price, Laziness does not exist (Atria Books 2021). And bascially, the main message is that laziness doesn’t exist. There are so many reasons for why somebody might appear “lazy” when they really struggle due to lots of invisible reasons, differences in privilege that others cannot see, etc. Especially in times of more-or-less post-pandemic, this is still relevant to me.

This idea has become a crucial part of how I think and I feel myself rebelling more and more against the mindset in Academia that you just have to “push harder” and “get over it” and accept that Academia can be a really harsh place. Ok, I’m admitting, it’s not like I’m new to rebellion and not being happy with the status quo but that’s a story for another time. I just wanted to make sure to at least mention this aspect that seems very relevant to me.

Working on your mental health is so important, thus I think it’s quite essential that teachers don’t accidentally do things which might harm the mental health of their students. Of course, ultimately everybody is responsible for their own boundaries but I think it’s important to take responsibility, too, and try to be aware of potential issues teachers might be causing their students. After all, I got co-opted into the council of the German DH organisation for my activities in our EmpowerDH working group (which is largely about all sorts of “politically correct issues” applied to DH, to not go into too much detail). So that’s also something I’m currently doing. I’m not sure how interested the audience of the LaTeX Ninja is in those topics (which are very important to me). Maybe I’ll blog about it at some point, let me know if you’re open to that!

Conclusion

If what you’re expecting students to do is way too difficult, learning cannot occur. Then again, students need to push themselves. If you give up after one failure, you miss all those opportunities for growth. You don’t learn from the perfect wave. You learn from the 50 nose dives you did before it. So don’t be discouraged if your efforts to learn programming (or anything else for that matter) seem like utter failures in the beginning. We can’t learn if not from failure. Sadly, lots of systems (the school system most specifically) don’t enourage making mistakes, they punish you for it. This is not an ideal learning environment. You need to adopt a growth mindset and you need to fail fast if you want to make swift progress. So find opportunities for failure. Take 10 waves while others are still waiting for a perfect wave to come along. Then maybe you realize it’s not the wave that’s perfect – it’s your ability to take it which makes it so. Thus, you can’t get perfect waves just by waiting for them – you need to hone your skills.

So I guess this post has more questions than it had answers and these are issues I’m still reflecting about. Maybe you have some thoughts you’d like to share and discuss in the comments!

And also, how did we get from surfing to teaching, to gamification and then mental health in just one (albeit long) post? It has been a ride!

So finally, all I have left to say (and I’m happy to be saying this once again):

Thanks for all the fish!
Best,

the NInja

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I like LaTeX, the Humanities and the Digital Humanities. Here I post tutorials and other adventures.

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