Let them fail

I was about to start writing this piece about student’s inquiring mind when my 8-year old daughter out of the blue asked, “Mom, do you know that many deep see creatures are transparent?”  To which I answered shortly because I wanted to start writing right away,” Sure.” Not getting the clue that I was not up for a discussion, she continued,” Okay, but do you know why?” Knowing that giving her the five minutes that she needed might be the only way for me to be able to start writing, I looked at her and said,” Tell me.”

Though not always aware or let’s say accommodating, I’m always fascinated by how much children learn at school, but even more fascinated by what they learn outside school. My daughter hasn’t learned biology yet at school, let alone marine biology about deep see creatures, yet she comes up with this kind of information on daily basis. When I asked how she found out about it, her answer was (of course) YouTube.  When I asked her why, her answer was, “I’m curious about them. They look funny. But do they all look funny? How do they feel living in such cold and dark water all their live? Who recorded those videos?”   

Nobody can make us want to learn better than ourselves. This report reveals that people are better at learning information they are curious about. Curious children spend a great deal of time acquiring information (or watching YouTube videos, ahem) because they are learning and enjoying it at the same time.  It has nothing to do with (school) grades. Funny how when children are so wrapped up in learning something triggered by their curiosity, they forget that they are learning and just can’t stop (Parents with young children can testify to this). What can teachers do to preserve the curiosity of their students?

Planting an inquiring mind

Curiosity is one characteristic of an inquiring mind. In connection to education, an inquiring mind is a prerequisite for being able to do research or to bring about educational innovation or educational leadership. These characteristics explained below are grounded in inborn curiosity and an urge to explore (Kruger, 2010):

Characteristic:Explanatory note:
Curiosity / Wanting to know / Questioning things.Asking questions because one wants to know something, is curious. Asking questions does not always mean that there should be an immediate answer or that it is possible.
An open attitude / Looking for your own presuppositions / Being able to postpone judgment.Looking for underlying presuppositions and assumptions. Not assuming that you know exactly how things are done in advance. Also, being aware that you always look from your own frame of reference and being aware of the underlying assumptions.
Being critical: is it really so? / Questioning things.Being critical of the quality and content of data from sources. Is it true? Are there other (opposite) opinions? Awareness that ‘the truth’ does not exist.
Wanting to understand / Wanting to gain insight / Wanting to understand.Wanting to know from the inside out in order to understand or act better. Aimed at deep insight.
Being prepared to change perspectives.To look at things from different angles: to consider different views or points of view.
Distancing oneself from routines / Questioning the obvious / Daring to leave the beaten track / Daring to choose one’s own direction.Not doing things ‘because everyone does it that way’ or ‘because it has always been that way’.
Focusing on sources / Wanting to build on previous views and ideas.The need to use sources to gather knowledge: searching for new insights and ideas, but also standing on the shoulders of others.
Focusing on knowing for sure / Wanting to use good sources / Wanting to be accurate.Wanting to use good quality sources, collecting data accurately and responsibly.
Want to share with others / Want to be part of learning communities.  The need to share knowledge with others. The others are sometimes scientists, sometimes colleagues in their own discipline, sometimes fellow students.

I believe that curiosity is the most important characteristic in maintaining the inquiring mind of students. When you have curiosity in hand, the rest of the characteristics will follow, or easier to develop or train. When a student is curious, she asks questions. She is critical, she wants to understand. If you are lucky, she will also come with an open attitude and is prepared to change perspectives, which also means that she dares to leave the beaten track. The combination already makes up a big part of an inquiring mind. 

Curious? Teach them to fail!
There are a lot of articles and studies on how teachers can foster students’ curiosity. An article from Edutopia mentions among others: rewarding curiosity, teaching students how to ask quality questions, encouraging students to tinker, using current events, and teaching students to be skeptics.

While all the aforementioned techniques are good, there is this unpopular technique teachers can use to foster curiosity, which is to train students to fail ‘usefully’. There is a stigma around failing, that is failures define a person. Teachers need to train students that a failure is not a defeat. A failure also means a new experience, new knowledge and it builds resilience. Since a failure normally brings in some strong emotion, it produces first-hand knowledge, and thanks to that strong emotion, this knowledge will stay fixed in a person’s mind. It may be a cliché, but if Steve Jobs would have had quit after his first ten failures, there wouldn’t have been any iPhone in this world.

Teachers need to train students to be reflective about their failure so that they can benefit from it. Just as they ask questions and analyse things when they are learning, curious students will also ask questions and analyse when they fail. It will kill them not to know the reasons they fail so that they can avoid them in order to do better next time. So, training students to fail usefully will also foster the curiosity they have within them.

Asking the right questions will help in failing usefully. Such as: what was it about my approach or decision that led to failure? What did I overlook? How would that have changed things? What can I do differently? How do I make sense of the experience and who can I ask for help?

But again, who likes to fail? How you teach students to embrace failures? That is a discussion for another day. I – at least for now – won’t fail you from knowing why many deep-sea creatures are transparent. Next to the fact that being transparent helps them avoid predators, these creatures are not pigmented, unlike creatures up on land. Pigmented means absorbing light. One of pigment’s roles is to help absorb the energy from light which the deep-sea creatures don’t get to do because there is no sunlight in where they live in.  Animals living underground like some moles also have transparent skin. Evolution doesn’t fail, or it does, only usefully.

This article was published first in the portfolio of Basic Didactic Course for University Lecturer held by HAN University of Applied Science Sept -2019 May 2020.

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