Apr 29, 2011

Students Need to Learn Effective Failure

“One of the things that amazed me was when we brought business people back to say, ‘What don’t we teach you in school,’ these were physicists who became business people. We didn’t teach students how to fail effectively.”

Arizona State University theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss. Along with other researchers, university presidents, and reporters, Krauss discussed science and tech policy recently at the Penn Club in New York City. He talked about how he had developed a program “in physics entrepreneurship. Which the business school dean at the time said was an oxymoron. But I don’t think so. The point is that what we do throughout our whole education system is give students solvable problems. In fact they’re guaranteed to be solvable, from problem sets in first-year physics to, in fact, a PhD.

“In the real world, most problems are not solvable exactly, and there are many competing demands. And you have to often change course in the middle in order to meet sociological issues as opposed to technological ones. And it’s very difficult for us to implement that in our teaching. But I think we do a much better job and a much better service to our students if we try and teach our students to fail more effectively.”

[Exact transcript of the podcast found here.]



14 comments:

  1. Micheline (Mickey) RonningenMay 2, 2011 at 2:20 PM

    Yes, yes, yes. True learning.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Don't students fail more often than they succeed?

    ReplyDelete
  3. Mary Kate DonaisMay 8, 2011 at 9:02 PM

    One of the lab courses I teach uses student-designed small research projects. Students learn how to develop methods, trouble-shoot instruments, and on occasion accept defeat when an experiment just doesn't work. They are still required to write a lab report for these "failed" experiments. This is a fantastic learning experience and often shared with the whole class in a discussion format

    ReplyDelete
  4. I totally agree with this. I provide customer support for our company's scientific instruments and have been doing this seemingly forever with a variety of companies. I am often surprised how these brilliant scientists and experimentalists are completely lost troubleshooting a misbehaving instrument. Even basic steps and obvious tests evade them. Most scientists and graduate students are great if the instrument is working perfectly, but the moment something is "not right" they are completely helpless. So much more can be gained by trying to work through an uncooperative apparatus compared to simply pushing buttons and running samples and collecting data day in and day out

    ReplyDelete
  5. I totally agree. The best way to learn is through failure because then you learn to figure out stuff yourself and get a better understanding of the material, instrument etc.

    ReplyDelete
  6. There is a good book and TED lecture on this.

    The book is "Being Wrong" by Kathryn Schulz. She also does the TED lecture.

    ReplyDelete
  7. A wise chemist named Kitashi Oita in my Weyerhaeuser research days, told me that if you were not at a 95% failure rate, you were not doing research.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Here is a quote from Thomas Edison when he was inventing the light bulb. This quote got me through my Ph.D.

    "Results? I have lots of results. I know 5,000 things that don't work."

    ReplyDelete
  9. I second that! Too often I observe students who are paralyzed by their fear of failure and having others witness that failure. Students must realize in all aspects of life we encounter failure. Unfortunately, American culture does not value the wealth of knowledge that comes from failure. We are too busy separating everyone into "winners" and "losers".

    ReplyDelete
  10. I once had a chemistry lab professor who gave "B's" to the students who had imperfect results, and A's to students with perfect line-fitting results. Needless to say, there was whole a lot of fudging going on. I think there needs to be support for the student whistle blowers who report to the dean about these so-called teachers. BTW, I got a "B" in that course..

    ReplyDelete
  11. In most experiments, if your results fit the line perfectly you did not do the experiment or you lied about it.
    In research, you do not even know whether a line is the right shape that the results should fit. You have to do the experiment well and repeatedly and let the results show you what reality is.
    Failure, in the sense the things do not work or do not repeat, is common. Failure, in the sense that the real results do not fit your internal view of what reality 'should be,' is also common.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Regina, you're completely right! Non-perfectness seems to be a big tabu in science, I see it not only in teachers but also in the lab, even in group leaders. I had personal experiences where my manuscript was being rejected because the lanes in a DNA gel weren't perfectly straight (although a personal interest of a reviewer probably contributed).

    I think non-perfect results are very, very important because they can tell us something more is going on "behind the curtain" (think about the planet Mercury, which doesn't perfectly follow an orbit dictated by gravity alone). In addition, non-perfect results keep us alert.

    ReplyDelete
  13. I agree. You can't learn from your mistakes unless you hit a few bumps in the road along the way. It will make you smarter on how you do things and how you think, and will make you more resiliant to other obstacles. God only knows the obstacles at HMS.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Even now as a Postdoc, I'm still making mistakes while challenging a new area. I believe that it will help me to meet challenges as a faculty and understand my future students.

    ReplyDelete