Monday, December 10, 2012

Why equity works in learning

I am very interested in process of learning.  I believe the only way to be truly relevant in changing work environment is to learn new things.  Not being afraid of making a mistake and learning from trial and error are essential tools for learning anything fast.  Once we give high cost to failure, we are effectively discouraging learning from taking place.

When I watch my 3 year old son, that's what I see.  He's not afraid of making a mistake.  One good example is that he repeats anything that hears whether it makes sense or not.  Often he picks up some foreign language and utters out his best impression of what he just heard.  When that happens, instead of him, I am the one who feel the need to explain the situation to onlookers.  My son, on the other hand, does not care whether someone is overhearing or not.  He just does it.

It is the perhaps most important quality in learning.  Not caring what someone else thinks, but just imitating the other who's already doing it and learning from trial and error.  The reason he can do it effortlessly is because he's not yet self-aware.  He doesn't care how repeating after anything may or may not be socially acceptable.  He does not yet know.

Hence in order to foster learning environment it is crucial to create an environment where failure is not only accepted but celebrated.  Everyone makes mistakes until they figure out how to do it the best.  Without it students would feel embarrassed to try new things and learn because of how bad they might do when they first try something.

Last week, my wife shared with me an article that ran on the Atlantic about What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland's School Success.  The author talks about how Americans pay lip service to learning from Finland's public education success, but failed to recognize the key ingredient in replicating their success: equity for all students.

Finland starts from an axiom that every child is equally capable and entitled to same type of education.  They don't have private schools, or wealthy vs poor school districts.  They don't even have letter grades or standardized tests to score their students.  Instead they let everyone learn at their own pace with emphasis on collaboration, not on competition.  Students are not compared with other students.  Instead they are encouraged to experiment and master the material by helping each other.

I believe the key is creating an environment where failure is encouraged.  Because students can experiment with their own way of understanding things, they are more likely to learn rather than getting discouraged from getting repeated labeled as C-students.  Finland has created an environment where students can try new things.  There is a little cost to getting a wrong answer because they are treated as equals even when they get some answers wrong.

The same holds true in any work environment.  If environment is such that failure is not tolerated, then there won't be any experimentation and innovation.  To get learning and growth going, we have to promote and celebrate failures.  That's what American education system needs the most.

It's meant to be funny, but somehow I don't find the humor
because it is in fact true in many organizations including our schools.

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