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Post date: Friday, 4 December 2015

The F Word: exploring failure and learning

People in different fields of work – like GPs, carpenters, engineering technicians, and health and community support workers - have different relationships with the idea of failure and the making of mistakes. This has really struck me when doing research on learning in workplaces.

I’ve talked with a number of GPs who lie awake at night worried sick about mistakes they might have made or ways they may have failed a patient. These worries can be as big as missing a crucial, time-sensitive diagnosis. Or they can be somewhat smaller, like not listening respectfully enough to a patient. Failures are the scary ghost stories that haunt their clinics.

I’ve talked to a number carpenters who have a different standpoint. For them, failure is more about a failure to identify, and then fix, inevitable mistakes. Failure is when you cannot come up with a solution for the wall that isn’t plumb or the stud that isn’t where it should be. Dicing with failure is a deliberate strategy used for training apprentices and developing their autonomous “building nous”.

Obviously consequences and scale play their part in how hard we try to avoid failure, or how it affects us and others if it happens. Failing to make a calculation accurately is different depending on whether it is for an exam, a retaining wall, or turning a corner at high speed. Our own psychological means are also factors. Words like “resilience” and “stickability” come to mind as important in recovery from failure. The environment and the resources available are important too. One thing is for sure though: failure occurs for everyone, at all levels, and in all kinds of endeavours.

It is a truism that people can learn from failure. However this doesn’t mean we always consider “failure” and “learning” alongside each other, or have the means to do so. If we’re attuned to learning from failure at all, it may be because it seems like what you should do – reluctantly – to make damned sure failure doesn’t happen again. In other words, most of us are not exactly relaxed about it.

In this blog we’ll be exploring explore ideas about the relationship between failure and learning. It may evolve into a larger or different project like a community of interest or an action learning group. I’m interested in people’s thought about things like that. I’m also interested in your stories of failure (and learning) and I aim to include some interviews with people who’ve experienced failure and gained insights about it. 

Following a frenzy of brainstorming activity, my friend and colleague, Rachel Bolstad, came up with the name for this blog. She writes about gaming and learning


So very true, it can be so hard to let go of the feeling of failure but that realisation of not being able to go back in time and correct it can only be overcome by the knowledge that you have learnt from it and will hopefully not make the same mistake twice.

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