Struggling to Learn

One of the challenges of teaching and consulting is resisting the temptation to give people the answers. Honestly, I like giving people the answers. It feels genuinely helpful, and it provides a nice ego boost.

But according to this article on Time’s “Time Ideas” site by Anne Murphy Paul titled “Why Floundering is Good,” that isn’t the best way to teach.

In fact, it can hinder learning.

The key point is summarized at the end:

… we need to “design [teaching] for productive failure” by building it into the learning process. Kapur has identified three conditions that promote this kind of beneficial struggle. First, choose problems to work on that “challenge but do not frustrate.” Second, provide learners with opportunities to explain and elaborate on what they’re doing. Third, give learners the chance to compare and contrast good and bad solutions to the problems.

Right now we are (hopefully) in the midst of a paradigm shift in how lean practitioners and teachers go about what we do.

Traditionally, a lot of us have simply given people the answers, or at least strong suggestions. Given the time constraints and overly ambitious targets of a typical 5 day event, that is understandable.

But now we are starting to see these events as skill building, which means learning, which means the teams need time to muddle through.

I have been structuring my approach quite differently for about a year now. I’ll be the first to admit that I, too, am figuring it out, reinforcing what works well, altering what needs to work better. These days I am far more comfortable letting things move through this struggle in order to set up deeper understanding once the light does come on.

The trick is to let them fail small, and not let them fail big. The problem has to have a solution that is within reach, or they will only come away frustrated.

Thus, teaching is becoming a matter of judging the knowledge and skill threshold and making sure they don’t take on too much at once. That is part of respect for people.

One problem at a time. Single factor experiments.

A great deal of the power in the “Coaching Kata” is turning out to be the question “Which *one* [obstacle] are you addressing now?” as it rules out working on everything at once.

2 Replies to “Struggling to Learn”

  1. Mark,

    I absolutely agree with the “fail small” thing and you’ve heard (and read) my thoughts on it many times. I think there’s one rather big thing in the way though – the “instant gratification / home run / failure is not an option” syndrome that haunts most companies. In support of it, everybody loves a home run or a huge win. They just feel good now don’t they?

    On the flip side, this is a habit that gets pretty tough to kick – for all of the reasons I just mentioned. And as we all know, folks that are addicted to something generally have a pretty tough time kicking the habit. Just look at the trouble Europe is going though trying to kick years of easy fix / deficit spending. And most companies are in a pretty similar situation.

    So many of us are under the gun to produce huge and instant savings (with no failures allowed) because many before us somehow managed to do just that. The sad truth is that many of those efforts didn’t fail in the short term, but are failing big time in the long term.

    BTW, some folks say that I’m cynical when I suggest things like this. I’d prefer to instead think that I’m just annoyingly realistic.


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