Monday, 19 May 2014

Is it ever safe to fail? #safefail

I often use the opportunity to access online education and technology videos whilst waiting around, they can get me thinking and inspire me. One such recent video featured Deborah Frances-White at the Learning and Skills Group Conference 2014. This post covers some of the thoughts from there, and how it lead to #safefail.

Safe (Takoma Park, MD) by takomabibelot CC-BY 2.0
Fail Stamp by Nima Badiey CC-BY 2.0

Near the beginning of the session Deborah asks for a volunteer. She gets two people willing to volunteer, a woman near the back of the room and a man in the front row. The woman is keen, eager and volunteers immediately. However, the man in the front doesn’t see this. Deborah goes on to explain what happens, how the man feels a compulsion to help the speaker out in what he feels to be a difficult, even uncomfortable situation. She says that in a room of a similar size it is usually possible to get one enthusiast volunteer; less common to get a reluctant but helpful volunteer, but everyone else feels a sense of relief that at least someone has volunteered.

In a room where several people know each other you can get the situation where a group will band together and rowdily volunteer an individual, something like “John, will do it!”, “Yeah! Go on, John!” Almost a case of ‘throwing someone to the wolves’. This isn’t an uncommon situation. Most people get a feeling of butterflies in the stomach, apprehension or downright fear at the request for volunteers. Most people sit at the back of a session for a reason and the front row is almost completely empty or fills up last; this then acts as a shield for the rest of the audience. Most people want to sit back in their seats and observe someone else do it first, they can then assess if they would be any good at it before having a go themselves. This is what comedians play upon when ‘working’ a live audience.

There is one group of people where it is possible to get lots of volunteers, children. Deborah gave an example where she was working with a group of children and she asked if anyone would like to have a go and almost everyone put up their hand and said, “Please, oh, please pick me.” The child she picked looked like she had won the lottery. And all the other children sighed at not getting picked. So being first when you are a kid is an opportunity. First when you are an adult is seen as something to be avoided. An adult going first doesn’t have any chance to assess if they will be any good at it. Children have a strategy. That strategy is to have lots of goes. Have as many goes as they possibly can. Their metric is how many goes they got. They aren’t necessarily bothered about the quality of any individual go. As adults we are more interested in having one perfect go, or having no goes at all. Deborah then uses an example of a fairground coconut shy where you can have three goes for £1. We know that the first few goes we are gathering data. The first throw could be way off target because we haven’t yet judged the weight of the ball or the distance correctly. On subsequent goes we are using the data from the previous experience to adjust our behaviour. However, if this is flipped to the example of a seminar or workshop then we prefer one go rather than three because it is giving more opportunity to demonstrate that we are no good at something. We are afraid of failure and possible humiliation. Children know that lots of goes means getting better at something; adults aren’t good at that.

So why, how and where does this change occur?

There must be something in the feedback processes that we receive throughout our development that causes this change to happen. Through that development we become more risk averse because of the imposed sense of being judged and the sense of failure. As a child if you feel relaxed and you think that you can achieve something, then you have a go and possibly don’t quite achieve it then your failure is pointed out to you and maybe you are told that you were over confident, you were ‘cocky’. You have to know your limitations. So we begin to learn that we need to look anxious and ultimately to be anxious and less confident of our abilities or potential. So any environment where we ‘do learning’ we take that anxiety in with us. Any training course, any workshop, tutorial, etc.

So this got me thinking. Is there merit in trying and failing often to improve our skill-set, without fear of judgement or ridicule?

I have heard successful entrepreneurs say how they fail often and they see it as a learning experience.

There is one area where continued failing is actually encouraged, leading to an elevated feeling of success on completion. This is in gaming strategy. A game that is too easy to master is not rewarding or fulfilling, leading to negative comments in reviews. People want to be challenged. They want to fail so that they can persevere and overcome a problem to finish a level in a game and move onto the next level. This is how the skill-set improves. When developing games for education, this ‘safe-failing’ needs to be understood and employed appropriately.

In the end, the only people who fail are those who do not try.
David Viscott, Psychiatrist

So can this ‘safe-failing’ be used more generally? Should we as learning technologists be experimenting and reporting what happens, be it a success or a failure? I have my views on this, but what are your thoughts? Leave a comment below. Also, if you have any examples you have of ‘safe-failing’ I’d like to hear them, make with #safefail
Ever Tried. Ever Failed. No Matter. Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better. Samuel Beckett
Fail Better by Feral78 CC-BY 2.0

You can see the full Deborah Frances-White video from the Learning and Skills Group Conference 2014

Images used:


  1. Mark - an example of safe failing - Improv comedy. I recently went on a short course doing this and one of the first rules you learn is it's OK to fail. Indeed it's encouraged. e.g See or watch the video at . I also think there's some crossover here between this approach and 'play'.

    1. Thanks Pete. That example is great. I've watched the Dave Morris video you provided the link to. There are a number of points that he makes that I can relate to. The point about being in the moment, not being in your head, that reminds me of Mindfulness which I've been reading about recently. I have heard that it is better to replace 'but' with 'and', and I try to do that myself.



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